Many experts believe clever motivational strategies may be more effective than brute willpower when it comes to developing and maintaining a fitness routine. Photo: Getty
Fill in the blank: it has been - days/weeks/months since your last sweat session.
That number could be the biggest contributor to your health this year.
''No matter your workout type, intensity and duration, you have to perform it regularly to see results,'' says trainer Marta Montenegro, adjunct professor of exercise and sports sciences at Florida International University in the US. Unfortunately, more than 70 per cent of Australian adults are either sedentary or exercise fewer than three times a week. But you don't have to be one of them. These research-backed strategies will help you become a gym rat in no time.
Go slow and steady
''Forget the go-big-or-go-home philosophy,'' says Kristen James, fitness manager for Equinox Fitness Clubs in New York. When you work out too hard - especially early into a routine before your body has a chance to adapt - you risk injuring yourself or just plain burning out, both of which can put an end to your gym habit. Once you have a fitness goal and deadline in mind, James recommends working backward: determine smaller goals you will need to accomplish along the way and write down realistic dates for meeting them. Breaking up your goal into chunks will make it feel more manageable and help you keep pace over the long term, she says.
Do what you love
''Do what you love, love what you do,'' James says. When it comes to motivation, there is nothing better than what experts call ''intrinsic motivation,'' doing an activity for the pure joy of doing it. If you like spinning, hit up a spin class. Don't force yourself to pound the pavement just because you think you should be a runner. What's more, most people enjoy activities at which they excel (duh). In the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a review of 38 studies found your belief in your exercise ability is the highest predictor of physical activity. The better you are at a workout - whether it's shaking your hips to Zumba tunes or holding the perfect plank - the more often you will do it.
Know your excuses
What is your excuse for skipping the gym? Once you think honestly about what keeps you from sticking to your workout schedule, you can devise simple strategies to deprive yourself of the chance to cop out. If you hit the snooze button all the way through your morning workout, schedule exercise during lunch or in the evening. After a long day at the office, do you ditch the workout bench for a date with the couch? Leave your gym bag in the car - or even in your office. Maybe a packed schedule is an issue. Shorten your workouts or spread your physical activity throughout the day. A walk here, a few vinyasas there, and, by the end of the day, you've done your body good, James says.
Set a schedule
A successful gym schedule doesn't leave anything to chance, says David Conroy, a professor of kinesiology and human development at The Pennsylvania State University. ''Scheduling your workouts at regular times will make exercise become part of your routine. You'll start doing it without thinking.'' First, ask yourself when you can realistically - not ideally - get to the gym. ''There's nothing more discouraging than shooting for five days a week and ending up doing twice a week,'' Montenegro says. Once you determine the when, find the most convenient locale possible. She also recommends visiting prospective health clubs at the times you plan to work out to ensure equipment is available when you need it most.
Change your image
Stop calling yourself a couch potato - you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A recent study of 100 women found that the more dissatisfied women are with their bodies, the more likely they are to avoid exercise. If you see yourself as someone who doesn't like to sweat, you will do things that people who don't exercise tend to do - like not working out. However, research has shown that when people view themselves as exercisers, it becomes a fundamental part of who they are and what they do, Conroy says. Tell yourself you're a fitness fanatic. Once you start logging regular workouts, it will be true.
Put your Facebook habit to good use: sharing workout goals and weekly progress with friends ups your success by 33 per cent, according to research from the Dominican University of California. While the likes and comments your posts will collect can do wonders for your confidence, posting your progress to Facebook will also force you to stay honest. ''You'll be almost embarrassed not to follow through on your goal,'' James says. You don't have to tell everyone how much you weigh or post scantily clad before-pics. Just focus on the positive, like how you shaved 30 seconds off your lap of the park. An accomplishment like that deserves serious virtual praise.
Want to get fit? Then dress the part. Looking your best is vital to getting you to the gym - especially if there is a marathoner on the treadmill next to you, according to research from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Invest in a nice pair of yoga pants, a flattering top and comfortable sneakers. Just like the perfect power suit, it will give you a self-esteem boost - and something to show off, Montenegro says. Likewise, droopy pants and a ratty T-shirt may make you feel frumpy, not fit.
Plan rewards (and penalties)
Health doesn't have to be the only reward for working out regularly. Pencil in a reward (such as a massage or that designer bag you have been eyeing) for every time you log a certain number of workouts. Shoot for products or experiences that can give you long-lasting enjoyment, Montenegro says. On the flip side penalties for missing a sweat session can be even more effective. Register the number of times you want to work out a week along with your credit card info at stickk.com. If you don't follow through, the charity of your choice gets a payday, courtesy of your bank account. Choose a cause you're anti for some extra motivation.
Additional reporting, Lissa Christopher