Feel like swapping the saddle for the sofa yet?

February is often the cruellest month for those who hit the gym after Christmas. Ingrid Kennedy offers some motivational tips
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The Independent Online

Six weeks on and those new-year health and fitness resolutions are looking as shabby as the Christmas decorations. You vowed to go to the gym three times a week and you've been three times... in total. You promised to give up chocolate and crisps and you've just consumed an entire Kit Kat and a packet of salt and vinegar... before breakfast. The workout isn't working out.

"It's no surprise that our motivation starts to falter in early February," explains chartered psychologist Sue Firth. "January is not necessarily the best time to embark on a health and fitness programme. We have a propensity to slow down in winter; it requires more emotional effort to exercise when it is cold and dark outside."

But the biggest danger is that we will fall into the all-or-nothing trap, which ensnares you in the belief that if you don't succeed at the first hurdle you have failed completely. Instead of throwing in the towel, what you should be doing at this stage of your programme is patting yourself on the back and enjoying a reward for everything you have achieved so far. Then go back to your original plan and adapt it in the light of what you have learnt.

Firth firmly believes that proper planning is nearly as important as the regime itself, and that means that you should review and update your programme on a regular basis. One common mistake, says Firth, is trying to make too many changes at once. "We have a far better chance of succeeding with a programme that suits our lifestyle," she reasons.

If you are someone who gets out of bed at the last minute don't expect to rise at an hour early for a run – you won't, so it's far better to fit exercise into your existing schedule. Focus on the positive aspects of what you have achieved. You may have only lost three of the five pounds you planned for, but that is still over halfway there.

Forgetting to monitor what you are eating is a common pitfall, according to Jacqueline Boorman, a state-registered dietician. She recommends keeping a daily food-and-mood diary so that you can look back to see when you have been overeating or undereating and why. Boorman's strategy is not to view food in terms of good and bad. You are allowed to eat whatever you want, but today, for instance, you choose not to have a big slice of chocolate cake – that can be tomorrow's treat.

And don't forget that you may find yourself in situations where you cannot stick to your chosen diet – you've got a social life, after all. The important thing is not to berate yourself. A few weeks into a programme, you should be losing no more than a pound or two a week, and staying the same weight for a couple of weeks should be viewed as a triumph. Rewards are an important motivational technique, so build them into your plan and make sure that you enjoy them in a way that doesn't involve food or too much drink; treat yourself to a haircut, for instance, or go to the football (skipping the curry afterwards, perhaps).

Another important thing to remember is that you don't have to struggle alone. Finding a training partner is not always easy, but if you have joined a gym make sure you get your money's worth, says personal trainer Simon Dobbs: "Find the person who did your induction programme – which should be revised every six weeks anyway – and ask them for advice.

"I sometimes find that people are not really sure what they want to achieve at first, or they may be embarrassed talking about their weight, so if you didn't get what you expected from your workout first time round, ask for another."

It is also worth remembering that you will put on weight during the first few weeks of training, so make sure you use more than one measure of success. Monitor your weight, the improvements in your body-mass index, how your clothes feel and your fitness levels to get an indication of what you have achieved so far.

"If you find the whole experience is causing you too much angst," counsels Firth, "you need to sit back and look at the reason why you are doing it in the first place. Motivation is wanting to do something, and if you are finding the cost greater than the benefit, perhaps now is not the best time for you to start changing your lifestyle."

On the other hand, if a new you for the new year is really that important, consider a personal trainer. Once considered a luxury, these can now be found for £25 an hour – not bad when you consider that many gym chains charge at least £50 a month on top of a joining fee. And the advantage with a personal trainer is that it's hard to avoid motivation when it comes knocking at your door once a week.

The way forward

Remember that success is how far you have come, not how far you have to go.

Reassess your goals – cut out the unrealistic ones and divide up your main goals into smaller milestones along the way to success.

Don't try and be too ambitious. You are more likely to become disillusioned and give up if the goals you set yourself prove too hard.

Make sure you get professional advice if you suffer pain or injury. The cause could be serious, but it could also be something as simple as wearing the wrong type of running shoes.

Make sure you have several measures of your progress, such as your body-mass index, fitness levels and the fit of your clothes, rather than relying purely on the scales.

Add positive elements to your lifestyle as well as removing negative ones: say to yourself that you are going to drink an extra two litres of water a day and eat two pieces of fruit, rather than merely cutting out caffeine and biscuits.

Get a training partner – ask your gym to assist you in this, or enlist the help of a personal trainer, even if it is just twice a month. (But do check that your trainer is properly qualified to advise you in what you want to do.)

Remember to reward yourself when you reach each milestone.