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Finding the Motivation to Exercise Now

Has the pandemic drained your desire to be active? Try these strategies to get moving again

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Having trouble staying motivated to exercise as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on? Experts say that's understandable and that you're not alone.

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In fact, about 32 percent of Americans say they're exercising less than they were before the coronavirus crisis began, according to a September survey conducted by the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future.

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Concerns about COVID-19 have forced many older Americans to sideline their usual fitness routines, whether they involve going to the gym, taking a group class or walking with friends. For some, working out at home is starting to lose its appeal. And the onset of cooler weather will make exercising outside more difficult.

Any drop-off in fitness is especially concerning for older adults, who are at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Research shows that physical activity is a powerful way to strengthen your immune system and an important tool to relieve stress. In one study people who exercised at least five days a week got over a cold nearly twice as quickly as those who were more sedentary.

"Exercise is so important during this time, perhaps more than any other time,” says Marilyn Moffat, a physical therapist and geriatric clinical specialist at New York University and coauthor of Age-Defying Fitness.

AARP asked Moffat and other experts to share their favorite strategies for jump-starting workout motivation.

Establish a new post-coronavirus routine

Staying motivated is always easier when you have a routine, says Corinna Loeckenhoff, director of the Healthy Aging Laboratory at Cornell University. “But during the pandemic, all of our routines have been thrown up in the air. People feel so drained because nothing is routine.”

Loeckenhoff recommends starting with the basics and building from there. Get back to a specific wake time and bedtime, and have set meal times. From there, pencil in daily physical activity, with the goal of starting a fitness routine.

"You're more likely to do exercise when it's integrated into your everyday life, so you don't have to think about it,” she says. “People think about exercise as a question of willpower, but it's much more about building it up [to] a routine. It works best if it's on autopilot."

Make exercise automatic by creating cues

As you create your mid-pandemic routine, consider building in specific cues that prompt you to exercise, Loeckenhoff suggests. Such prompts are the single best way to make an exercise habit stick, according to a study published in Health Psychology.

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A cue can be anything that gets you to work out without thinking much about it. Your morning alarm can trigger you to do yoga; finishing the dinner dishes can be your reminder to walk around the block. Or maybe you do strength training with an elastic band every time you watch your favorite news program.

Find new ways to make it social

For many older adults, the social aspects of a fitness class or a walking group are an important part of what they enjoy about the activity, says Sabrena Jo, director of science and research content at the American Council on Exercise. Studies show that having a fitness buddy also makes you more likely to exercise consistently.

During COVID, Jo recommends looking for creative ways to share a workout with a friend. If you can't walk together in person, make a regular date to chat on the phone while each of you walks around your neighborhoods (wireless earbuds that sync with your phone can make this effortless).

Also, check to see if your favorite fitness classes are being offered via Zoom (this is the case at many places, like gyms and senior centers; just check their websites or call to ask).

"Even though it's not the same as being there with your friends, it's still a way to see each other and remain connected,” Jo says.

Also, many personal trainers are scheduling Zoom sessions for smaller groups, allowing you to work out remotely together.

Squeeze in shorter bouts of activity

If you feel your plate is full from working at home and managing caregiving or household duties, keep in mind that exercise doesn't have to be long or unpleasant to be effective.

"A lot of people can't let go of the idea that they have to huff and puff for 60 minutes for exercise to count,” says Michelle Segar, a motivation coach and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.

The truth is, there's been a huge shift in our understanding of what benefits us when it comes to physical activity, says Segar, who is director of the University of Michigan's Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center. “Two minutes counts; 10 minutes counts; everything counts.”

To rediscover your fitness motivation, try scheduling two five-minute workout sessions during a busy day. Maybe you do a round of push-ups while you wait for the shower to warm up, or you put on some music and dance around the house for a few minutes after dinner. Then stick with it, adding in more time when you find it.

You can multitask, too, by turning everyday activities into a workout — by, say, vigorously pushing the vacuum or scrubbing the shower or doing squats to pick up sticks in the yard.

Mix it up

If there ever was a time to try something new or something you haven't done in a while, it's now, says Jo, noting that you can find how-to videos on just about everything on YouTube.

Anything goes, as long as it gets your body moving and it's fun. Studies show you're much more likely to stick with a physical activity you enjoy. A few ideas: pickleball in the driveway, an extended-family Facetime dance party, a bike ride, Hula-Hoops, a hike on a local greenway.

Moffat recently relearned a Scottish dance she knew as a child. “It let me break up the routine a little bit and do something different,” she says. “It was fun."

Notice how good exercise makes you feel

The potential long-term benefits of physical activity are impressive — a longer life span, better health, a sharper mind — but a 2019 study found that people are much more likely to exercise frequently when they focus on short-term outcomes. So the next time you squeeze in a sweat session, “notice how you feel more focused afterward, how you just have a little more energy and verve, how it boosted your mood,” Segar advises.

Remembering the positive effects you feel will motivate you to work out again tomorrow — and the day after that, too.

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