24/11/2014 12:12 GMT | Updated 24/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Through the Looking Glass - Step Away From the Mirror to Stay Motivated to Exercise

Mirror, mirror...

Having been in the fitness industry for years, I've seen many people set out with good intentions to start an exercise plan, but after just a few weeks they will have failed to stick with it. A drop-off in motivation is common, and usually comes when people don't put all the right things in place to stay on track. A big part of that is about measuring progress.

Most of us probably think that just using the mirror or jumping on the scales every day to judge how we are shaping-up will inspire us to stick to an exercise plan, but the opposite is usually true - it can actually discourage and demotivate.

Research actually shows that Brits rely on using the mirror and scales to track how they're doing. A third of us who exercise (33%) checking the mirror, while nearly half (43%) weigh ourselves. Because of what I've learned about the drivers of human motivation, I was dismayed when I learned how high these figures are, but perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise.

Mind over matter

While we might think that exercise is all about the body, motivation actually comes down the mind. Our motivation to exercise (or to do anything else that we don't have to do) goes far deeper than what we might see in the mirror or on the scales. We need to fulfil a range of psychological needs to form a habit, and insights from behavioural psychology show that motivation is triggered by certain factors.

Vital among these is gaining an accurate understanding of the improvements we're making - and while arguably you might see some of that from the mirror or scales - the crucial component is actually a human element. To maintain motivation, humans tend to need feedback from someone they trust and respect, whether that's a friend, partner or expert. So monitoring progress in the bathroom won't cut it.

The progressive approach...

Sports psychologists and behavioural psychologists alike will tell you that there are three basic human needs that have to be fulfilled in order for us to stay motivated to exercise regularly. You don't have to have a psychology degree to understand them. By applying the following principles into our exercise plans, we can all crack the motivation code:

Get regular feedback - We need to properly monitor how we're getting on in order to understand that we're improving; an important part of this is being given encouragement and feedback from someone we trust. We need feedback to fuel our motivation and instil confidence that we are improving, becoming fitter, and succeeding in reaching our goals.

Give yourself a choice in what you do, and choose something that appeals - We need to feel that we have chosen to do something and haven't had it imposed on us by someone else, as this makes us feel disempowered. Make sure you have a range of options available to you which can easily fit into your daily life. Choose workouts that appeal and ones that you're confident doing, as this is vital in helping us stay motivated.

Workout where you feel comfortable and belong - Feeling like part of a group or club is always a positive thing because it makes us feel safe and like we belong. Exercising somewhere that makes you feel nervous, out of place, unsafe or simply a bit alone goes against this basic human need. Ideally, we need to feel socially connected, and be in a positive environment that makes us feel welcome. Whenever possible, work out with friends or in small groups to help you stay motivated. Another tip is to workout with people who are at a similar level to you, as they will often face the same issues which you can overcome together.

By making small changes that apply these principles, everyone stands a better chance of being successful in staying fitter for longer.