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How to Find the Time and Motivation to Exercise in College

The fitness coach and YouTuber Elliott Hulse has a simple philosophy on life:

“The most important part of the game is your game piece.”

We’re all players in the game of life, and the only game piece we have is our body. If we don’t take care of it, we can’t play the game as well as we should.

Whether you’re a student or a recent grad, it’s not uncommon for fitness to take a back seat to other obligations: work, studying, relationships, and so on.

But as you’ll discover in this article, a consistent exercise routine is entirely compatible with even the busiest schedules.

This article will address two objectives:

  1. Finding more time to work out
  2. Gaining the motivation to work out consistently

Let’s get started.

Find Your “Why”

It’s incredibly difficult to justify discomfort and sacrifice without having a “why”: an underlying purpose for doing what you do.

Working out consistently and getting in shape sounds great in theory. After all, regular exercise has been demonstrated to improve sleep, boost memory, and reduce stress in addition to its physical health benefits.

However, if there are no consequences for abandoning your commitment to exercise, it makes it easy to fall off the wagon when the going gets tough.

I hate to break it to you, but life is going to throw you some curveballs. There will be days when working out is the last thing on the list of things you want to do. There will be days when the temptation to kick back and binge-watch TV is stronger than your desire to be healthy. But it’s during these times that your “why” will keep your engine running.

Simon Sinek gave a world-famous Ted Talk about this called “Start with why.” Here are his top tips for staying motivated:

  • Write yourself a letter.
  • Make a promise to someone you love.
  • Start a challenge with a friend.
  • Do anything you need to remind yourself why you’re starting this journey. Sheer willpower isn’t always enough to keep you going. But having a purpose will facilitate action.

Squash Those Excuses

So you know your “why,” and you’re amped up to get serious about fitness. But let’s be real: you’ll still have the temptation to slack off. In the next two sections, I’ll address two critical factors that determine whether or not you stick to your exercise regimen: time and motivation.

You Have More Time Than You Think

In her book 168 Hours, the author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam makes a controversial claim during a time where everyone is “too busy” to pursue their goals, fitness or otherwise: you have more time than you think.

“The problem is not that we’re all overworked or under-rested,” says Vanderkam. “It’s that most of us have absolutely no idea how we spend our 168 hours [in a week].”

Your first step, then, must be to analyze your daily schedule, hour by hour. One easy way to do this is to check your screen usage time. You’d be surprised how much time you waste on social media and email.

Another option is to simply track your time using a planner. With a comprehensive view of your day, you’ll be able to locate inefficiencies and accordingly plug in times to exercise.

Always understand your whole schedule before addressing the details.

Got Seven Minutes?

The internet is flooded with information that can cause us to overestimate how much time it takes to get an effective workout. Truthfully, you don’t need all the frills. Your goal is to sweat—it doesn’t matter how you get there.

It’s easy to say, I don’t have any equipment in my dorm or apartment so I can’t get a good workout in. I’m here to tell you: short, intense bodyweight workouts are just as difficult as anything you can do with fancy equipment.

Do burpees for five minutes straight and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

There’s even a free app called 7 Minute Workout that gives you (you guessed it) a seven-minute workout every day. These speedy workouts combine 30-second increments of simple exercises that you can do anywhere, like jumping jacks, crunches, and squats.

If you’re still pressed for time, here’s the easiest solution of all: set your alarm for 45 minutes earlier. Now you’ve just bought yourself an extra 45 minutes on the days you want to work out.

Sure, it might be uncomfortable. But that discomfort only lasts about five minutes, after which you’ll experience a sense of gratification for the sacrifice you’ve made.

If you’re not a morning person, you don’t have to use that 45-minute block right after you wake up. You can shuffle your day’s tasks around and squeeze that 45 minutes into the afternoon or evening.

Rethink What Motivation Means

Tacking a motivational quote on our wall or setting it as our phone wallpaper seems like a great idea at first. It might even get you excited for a day or two. But that feeling always seems to fade as quickly as it appears.

On the other hand, think of great athletes like LeBron James or Tom Brady: they don’t have to give themselves a pep talk to hit the gym—they just do it.

I’ve thought a lot about why this is, and I’ve settled on a theory that’s especially relevant for fitness: motivation is a byproduct of action. (Not the other way around).

For example, I’ve been writing almost every day since my sophomore year of college in 2015, but four years later I’m way more motivated to become a better writer than I was when I started out.

The same principle applies to fitness: the more you invest towards a goal, the more motivated you become to achieve it.

With that said, here are four ways to increase your motivation to exercise that are far more effective than watching YouTube videos or trying to “feel inspired”:

1. Find a Workout Partner

Jim Rohn said that we are “the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” The company we keep sets the standard for what we perceive is acceptable. This is especially true when it comes to fitness.

I discovered firsthand that finding a workout partner can be one of the most effective ways to help you stick to your fitness goals.

As a naturally independent person, I prefer to work out alone. However, when a friend of mine (who is admittedly stronger than me) asked me to join him three times a week, my fitness level skyrocketed. I ran faster miles, lifted heavier weight, and simply felt healthier.

This is no coincidence.

A study by the Society of Behavioral Medicine showed that exercising with a partner, especially in a team format, improved performance, doubling the workout time of those who exercised alone.

Another study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology had participants perform a series of planks alone and with a partner. The researchers found that working with a partner allowed the participants to hold their planks for a longer period of time. In fact, those who exercised with a stronger partner increased their plank time by 24 percent.

Examine your circle of friends closely: are they helping you reach your fitness goals or obstructing them?

2. Externalize Your Motivation

Sometimes, raw perseverance isn’t enough to keep us committed to our fitness goals: we need someone else to hold our feet to the fire. One effective way to externalize your motivation is to do this is to sign up for regularly-scheduled workout classes.

This eliminates the number of times you have to figure out when and where to exercise—it’s already decided for you. Not to mention, you won’t want to deal with those Where were you at yesterday’s workout? questions.

If you don’t have access to classes or a workout partner, apps can be an effective means of externalizing your motivation. For example, Beeminder has you pledge cash towards your goal and prompts you to reply with progress checkpoints (such as the number of push-ups you did on any given day.)

If you derail, you lose the money. Beeminder is especially useful for fitness motivation because it integrates with other services like Fitbit and Toggl.

3. Don’t Break the Chain

When a young comedian named Walter Isaac asked Jerry Seinfeld how he could improve his standup act, Seinfeld offered a simple but interesting piece of advice. He told him to hang a big calendar on his wall, and after every day he wrote a joke, to draw a big red “X” over that day.

In an interview with Lifehacker, Isaac recalled what Seinfeld told him backstage: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

This habit-forming strategy works the same way for your fitness goal. The longer you see your own chain of “X’s” grow for the days you’ve exercised, the more you’ll want to avoid breaking it.

4. Consistency Is Key

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, health psychology researcher Phillippa Lally examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period.

At the end of the term, Lally and her team analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to automatically adopt certain behaviors such as running for 15 minutes before dinner.

On average, it took the participants 66 days before their new behaviors to become automatic. This time gap may explain why it can be so difficult to develop fitness habits—two months of conscious effort can be exhausting.

However, if we manage to not “break the chain” and survive those shaky initial weeks, sticking to the plan becomes exponentially easier as time progresses.

I asked Matt Nephew, a certified personal trainer and corporate fitness advisor for brands like P&G and General Electric, about the importance of consistency when it comes to training:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your body can’t be either. More than 70 percent of people who set fitness goals as new year’s resolutions quit before reaching that goal. A lot of that has to do with our lack of patience: we don’t see immediate results, so we think it’s worthless to keep churning the wheels. But if you show up and put in the work day after day, you’ll get addicted to the feeling and the results.

Stop Thinking and Start Doing

All of those motivational quotes, videos, and articles can only take you so far. At some point, the rubber has to meet the road. It’s easy to confuse planning with action. But remember: all action isn’t right action.

But once you get that blood pumping, feel those endorphins kick in, and start seeing results, I promise you’ll never look back.