Frigid temps, festive food, and too many parties: They can all extinguish your desire to work out. In fact, women are 30 percent less active at this time of year than when the days are long and the temps are balmy, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. But new research on the psychology of motivation suggests that when your drive to sweat is at an all-time low, the fix may be as simple as changing up your approach. "We're talking about easy but incredibly effective ways to achieve goals," says Ian Ayres, Ph.D., an economist and a professor at Yale Law School, who examines successful motivation techniques in his recent book Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done.
Make a Commitment Contract
In a perfect world, you work out regularly because you actually like all the heart-pumping, endorphin boosting, waist-slimming benefits that come with it. Researchers call that intrinsic motivation, and it's a critical factor for staying with a long term routine. But when your inner drive is thwarted—say, by the obligation marathon that is the holidays—external incentives can give you the boost you need, says Ayres. It's an idea grounded in behavioral economics, a tool used by many corporations to motivate their employees and improve their bottom lines.
Incentives work like a charm for some (a 30-minute jog each day for a month = a new Marc Jacobs tote), but behavioral economists such as Ayres say that the flip side—penalties for missing a sweat session—are even more effective... especially when they involve your hard-earned cash. "People will work twice as hard when money is at stake compared with relying only on their willpower," he says. Try it: Register your goal and credit-card info at stickk.com. If you don't do a predetermined number of workouts, the charity of your choice gets a payday, courtesy of you. "This is even more effective if you give money to something you don't like," adds Ayres. Diehard liberal? Set up your account to donate to a conservative group, and watch your sweat fly.
Or make a friendly wager among coworkers or friends: Everyone ponies up $10 and whoever logs the most workout sessions over three months wins the pot. This is an ideal commitment device because you have a financial prize and punishment in place simultaneously. "Just make sure the group is large enough," warns Ayres. "If you have fewer than three people, you give each other room to slack off."
In behavioral economics, these tactics are called commitment contracts; they work by removing and reducing choices. And you don't have to dole out dollars to feel the pressure, adds Ayres. Let's say you register for a walkathon. You're signing your name to that goal. Elevate that sense of duty by sharing the plan with friends or walk for a cause that requires you to raise funds. You're far less likely to bail if you've already hit up friends and coworkers for donations.
Line Up Reinforcements
Research points to another psychological factor that affects your drive to work out: your pride. According to Penn State researchers,simply having a supportive friend, family member, or significant other makes you more likely to stick with your fitness regimen. Participants who started a new workout plan with a partner cheering them on logged more exercise hours than people who lacked this support. This kind of help has an intrinsic effect too: A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that when you share a triumph with someone else—like finishing a 5K or even surviving one killer abs class—and they respond enthusiastically, your perceived value of that event increases and you may become more invested in it. "Another person's enthusiasm can help people feel valued," says lead researcher Harry Reis, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Rochester. Plus, he adds, by sharing workout successes, you're cementing the (perhaps once elusive) idea that exercising is part of your core identity, which can help you stay on that path.
Make It Personal
Like the eternal Mac versus PC debate, motivation is ultimately "to each her own." And sometimes it takes drastic measures. On their New York Times blog, Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt, Ph.D., and Stephen Dubner share the example of a woman who placed a five-pound blob of faux fat (yeah, seriously, fake body fat) next to her refrigerator as a reminder not to OD on snacks and portion sizes. Disgusting? Absolutely. Effective? It can be, says Ayres: "If you respond to scare tactics, talk about instant motivation to get in a jog or put down the ice cream!"
The bottom line: It's about finding what you really enjoy and what gets you going, says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., an assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. "Try as many classes, running paths, and exercise machines as you can. Somewhere between swimming and spinning, you will click with an activity or two." Spend your workout hours doing these types of exercise and you're much more likely to bank your sweat sessions, no matter what the season. Actually liking your workout makes it that much easier to invest in it.