Vowing to get up off the couch and get fit is one of the most common New Year resolutions. Full of new-found enthusiasm, we declare: "This year I'm really going to do it and zap the flab once and for all..." And you know that if you stick to it, you'll not only look great, but you'll also feel a lot better. It makes sense on every level. The only problem is that the commitment rarely lasts.
By the beginning of February – or even before January is up – your brand-new exercise bike is gathering dust, or you've stopped going to the gym, despite having taken out a year's membership.
The Annals of Behavioral Medicine reported, in October, on a study of 205 sedentary adults who were encouraged to begin an exercise programme. At six months, about half had got down to it, but by 12 months, around a third had packed it in. It's a typical story. But why do people give up? Is it simply a lack of commitment? "No, most of them have the best intentions, it's just that they haven't thought through the smaller details, such as deciding how fit they want to get and when they want to achieve it by," says Keith Irving, a performance psychologist at the Oxfordshire-based fitness networking site iStadia www.istadia.com. "They might have joined a gym or bought some home-exercise kit, but without identifying these lesser goals, most people typically lose their initial motivation."
Another common mistake is going at exercise too hard at first, and ending up sore all over. "People haven't gotten away from the 'no pain, no gain' mentality," says David Williams, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Rhode Island. In the stressed modern world, it's all too tempting to push for maximum gains in minimum time. But according to Williams, this only serves to make people dread workouts. "They feel good to be done with it, not to be doing it."
To remove the "dread factor", Williams advises starting slowly at first and setting your fitness goals lower, so they're achievable. If you've been mostly sedentary up until now, he recommends starting with a five-minute walk during your lunch hour, three times a week, and build up from there.
The key, he says, is being consistent, no matter how small the effort: "Over time, you'll increase your fitness by virtue of doing something, and your level of intensity might naturally increase as well."
If you're lucky (or obsessively driven), you might even find yourself matching the incredible fitness levels of Indiana-based Ted Skup, who has done more than 10 million push-ups over the last 25 years. According to a New York Times report in 2008, many Americans can't even do one push-up. But Ted, nicknamed "The Pusher", pulls off just over a thousand a day – without fail. In his book Death, Taxes & Push-Ups (Abox Publishing, 2008), Skup says: "This is an all-inclusive exercise that works for everyone. It's the best exercise you can do that's working your whole body." Skup wants to do for push-ups what the late Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, did for jogging. He's on a mission to get us all to leave behind expensive gym memberships and exercise equipment and become "pushers" too. "Push-ups are 100 per cent free," he says. "People are kind of going back to the old days of doing exercises at home simply because of economics or time-management."
One way Skup keeps motivated during his daily routine is by listening to music. He's not alone. Many people use music to keep them from flagging during workouts. In 2007, the singer Rihanna listed her favourite workout songs in Fitness Magazine, recommending four of her own tracks for "when you have to pick up the pace on the treadmill". Self-serving it might have been, but a British study has found that the dance remix of Rihanna's song "Umbrella" is the ideal beat to workout to. The research was led by Dr Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist at Brunel University, in west London, who has studied the effects of music on physical performance for 20 years. He found that the perfect tempo to exercise to is between 120 and 140 beats per minute (BPM). Besides "Umbrella", many dance and rock tracks conform to this, including "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen, "Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg, and "Mercy" by Duffy.
In one test, Karageorghis got 30 volunteers to workout to specially selected rock and pop music, and found their endurance rose by an average of 15 per cent. He considered this to be "very significant" in terms of staying motivated and benefiting from workout routines.
So, the key to maintaining your get-up-and-go throughout the year could very well be to crank up your sound system or plug in your iPod.
Keep on running: How to stay motivated
MOTIVATION TIPS FROM TED 'THE PUSHER' SKUP
Ted Skup has done more than 10 million push-ups over the last 25 years. This is how the author of 'Death, Taxes & Push-Ups' keeps himself motivated:
Daily Affirmations: Repeat key motivational phrases, such as "I am a lean, mean pushing machine", every day to program your mind to achieve your goals.
Visualisation: Picture yourself looking and feeling good in your mind's eye. See yourself enjoying and benefiting from your workouts.
Positive Attitude: Never say die! Always have the attitude of "I will", rather than "I can't". Say to yourself: "I can achieve all my fitness goals. I will do push-ups on a daily basis."
Goal Setting: Write down what you want to achieve from your fitness routines. List where you want to be this year, this month and even just this week. But do make sure that your goals are realistic, and don't overstretch yourself.