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How to Stay Motivated When the Last Thing You Want to Do Is Exercise

“The number-one reason people give for not exercising is time,” Dr. Heinrich said, and the only reliable way to find the time is to prioritize it. “You have to make a decision to put exercise into your day, it’s not just magically going to happen.”

Ms. Johnston used to try and squeeze exercise into her life by doing things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, “But that never really stuck or gave me any validation that I was doing anything meaningful,” she said. “Giving exercise a distinct place in my life was motivating.”

If you think of exercise as optional, you give yourself permission to skip it. Instead, try thinking of it as an essential part of your job, said Brad Stulberg, author of “The Practice of Groundedness” and a frequent writer about human performance. “Whether you are a parent, business person, physician, writer, artist, lawyer or educator, exercise will make you better at what you do,” he said. “It will help you focus, stay calm and collected, and improve your energy.”

Making exercise a priority doesn’t mean you need a rigid schedule. A study Dr. Milkman and some colleagues published in 2020 found that giving yourself flexibility to meet your goals might boost your chance of success. Researchers studied more than 2,500 Google employees, randomly assigning some of them to get paid for going to the company gym during a window of time they had identified in advance as the most manageable, while others could opt to go anytime.

The researchers had expected that committing to specific times would help people form stronger habits, said lead author John Beshears, a behavioral economist at Harvard Business School. Instead, the people who’d been given flexibility ended up going more often after the payments ended. When the group on the rigid program missed their planned workout, they didn’t go at all, whereas the group that had practiced finding the time continued to do so, Dr. Milkman said.

“The best fitness motivator is a friend. They hold you accountable to show up and they support you when you don’t,” Mr. Stulberg said.

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