The Secret to Really Sticking to Your Workouts

Pull out your calendars! Researchers say the trick to sticking to your workouts involves planning far in advance.

by Stephanie Stephens Health Writer

Perhaps you got up today and thought, "I will go to the gym today and I will feel better." Great idea! You also know that saying this, thinking about it, and doing it are different matters altogether. So, what's the secret personality sauce that motivates some people to say they're going to do something and then actually do it?

A new study from the University of Oregon, published in Psychological Science, says that if you actually make firm plans—not "Well, I, uh, might go later"—to do more exercise you probably will. That's especially true when compared to people who are more casual and don't make those must-do plans far in advance.

The study’s authors figured they could predict physical activity with a facet or category of conscientiousness that's related to goal pursuit—it's called planfulness. Now that's a lot to digest, so first, remember that conscientiousness is a personality trait of being orderly and dependable, and researchers say it's been associated with healthy behaviors for a long time, which makes sense.

You might also have an inkling about the meaning of planfulness just from its name. Lead author on this study, doctoral student Rita Ludwig in the university's psychology department, wrote that planfulness captures a person's tendency to adopt efficient goal-related cognition, or thinking, in pursuit of their goals.

Planfulness Equals More Commitment

Returning to our original study, Ludwig and team say that self-reported levels of planfulness may translate to real differences in our behavior. They say studying planfulness as part of conscientiousness helps them "zero in on" psychological processes like mental flexibility and our ability to look down the road—and to realize that short-term sacrifices right now, although maybe not a lot of fun, may pay off handsomely in the future. All of this helps us achieve long-term goals.

In this study, the researchers tracked gym attendance of 282 study participants over 20 weeks, starting with the winter 2018 semester. They also collected past data on gym visits during the 2016-2017 fall and spring terms.

But first, participants had written work to do, completing surveys on planfulness, personality traits, self-control, and grit or perseverance. Then those self-reported results got compared with gym use.

Everyone's gym attendance declined as the semester went on—commercial gyms would probably agree it happens there, too—but people who gave themselves high ratings on planfulness items worked out more than those who rated themselves lower.

One surprising finding: You'd "think" that people who achieve their goals might be able to write about how they do that in detail. But no, there was "no relationship between goal-pursuit behavior and how they wrote about goals," Ludwig said in a statement.

"We conclude that the Planfulness Scale is a valid measurement uniquely suited to predicting goal achievement," the authors say.

Stick to It With a Chronic Illness

Maybe you're thinking, "This all applies to someone else, and not me, because I have a chronic illness." Truth is, exercise can do a lot of good, so talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before you start any exercise to be sure about what you should and shouldn't do. Oh, and consider how planfulness might help you going forward.

As the Mayo Clinic explains, if you have these conditions, here's how exercise can be your friend:

  • Heart disease: Exercise can help your heart, including if you do interval training. That's short bursts (approximately 30 seconds) of intense activity with longer intervals (three to four minutes) of less intense activity.

  • Diabetes: Exercise helps your insulin work better, helps you manage your weight, and have more pep in your step. It also reduces your risk of dying from heart disease.

  • Asthma: If you have it, you're always wondering, "When's my next attack?" Exercise helps you better manage how often and how severe your attacks are.

  • Back pain: If you've been to physical therapy for your back pain, chances are you were told that strengthening "core" and back muscles can help reduce your pain. There are loads of safe, low-impact exercises, often as part of a routine or circuit, that do both.

  • Arthritis: Exercise is a multitasker here, as it increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain—yes, really—and helps you feel less tired.

  • Cancer: Get moving for better quality of life overall and to boost your fitness, which can always use a boost. The benefits of physical activity during cancer treatment are numerous. Exercise can improve overall physical function and improve quality of life.

  • Dementia: Exercise helps cognition for those with this condition. In fact, a 2018 study in Frontiers in Psychology says that, for everyone, exercise determines positive biological and psychological effects that affect the brain and cognitive functioning and promote wellbeing.

Why not test your "sticktoitiveness" by giving planfulness a place in your thought process, and measure your own great results?

Stephanie Stephens
Meet Our Writer
Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a very experienced digital journalist, audio/video producer and host who covers health, healthcare and health policy, along with celebrities and their health, for a variety of publications, websites, networks, content agencies and other distinctive clients. Stephanie was accepted to THREAD AT YALE for summer 2018 to author and produce an investigative series. She is also active in the animal welfare community.