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How to Motivate Yourself to Go to the Gym on Cold, Dark Days

I love to work out, and as a senior editor at Health, it’s a big part of my job. But I’m the first to admit that exercising when days turn cold and dark can suck. It’s pitch black when my alarm goes off for a before-work workout, and it’s dark again by 4 p.m. Plus, living in New York City means snowy, wind-chilled treks to the subway to get to my fitness locales.

But one thing I know very well about myself is that my mood sinks drastically in fall and winter. Exercise is in part an antidote to my winter blues. Because of that, I’ve found little tricks that help me stay consistent—and in turn happier and with more pep in my step overall—through the cold-weather months. Read on for the fall and winter workout motivation hacks that work for me . . . that might just work for you too.

Wake up to light and music

If I’m working out in the morning before work, the toughest part for me is physically getting out of bed. Once I’m up and standing, I’m set. So when my alarm goes off, I immediately switch on my bedside lamp and stream my Spotify workout playlist from my phone. Even if I lie in bed for a few minutes longer, the gentle light and good tunes keep me alert enough so that I won’t doze off again and ditch.

Or treat yourself to an early holiday present and invest in Sonos wireless speakers. The Sonos mobile app allows you to set alarms so you can wake up to your pump-up playlist—a tip I learned from Ashley Wilking, an instructor at Rumble Boxing in New York City and a Nike trainer.

“I love choosing my songs based on what my day looks like,” Wilking tells Health. “If I need to wake up at 4 a.m. to teach class, I like something to pump me up—I’ll go for a rap or hip-hop mix. If I’m getting up to start my day but want to keep a mellow vibe, I’ll go for the Coffee House Chill or Indie Acoustics playlists on Spotify.”

Warm up on the way to the gym

If you’re like me and can’t (or just don’t like to) work out at home, you have to find a way to make the chilly gym commute more manageable. If weather permits and it’s safe to do so, try using the journey as a warm-up opportunity. “I always ride my Citi Bike to class in the morning,” Wilking says. “It gets you moving before you have to move in your workout.”

Wet or icy roads preventing you from jogging or biking your way there? Distract yourself with good music or a podcast. “I put on an audio book—my current listen is You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero—and take Mia, our mini Australian shepherd, for a walk along the water,” Wilking says.

Follow a fitness influencer 

Like many humans, I wake up and scroll social media for a bit before getting out of bed, which helped me discover the Insta-story of Joelle Cavagnaro, a personal trainer and high school health and physical education teacher in the New York City area.

Cavagnaro is awake at 5 a.m. every morning and chronicles her dark walk to the gym, her workout, and her (still dark) hike home. She provides hilarious commentary and super motivational words of advice. Watching Cavagnaro’s efforts every single day makes me think, if she’s out there getting it done before the sun is up, I can do the same.

“Knowing that I have people following my journey, my workouts, my routine, helps me to stay on track, just as much as it helps them,” she tells Health.

Become a regular

For many months now, I’ve been hooked on a particular fitness studio—Switch Playground—and I’ve been more consistent than ever with my workouts. I’ll get there rain (or cold, or wind) or shine.

To start, I love the actual workout—and that is key when it comes to making a fitness habit stick, especially during the toughest time of year to do it. (“It’s pretty hard to stick to a workout plan you hate,” Cavagnaro points out. “If you hate the treadmill, don’t go on the treadmill.”)

But another major part of what gets my butt to class is that I’ve become close with many of the instructors. I’ll drop them a message, like, “I’m coming to the 7:15; I’m exhausted so I need a good push tonight!” Giving them that heads-up that I’m attending holds me accountable; and having a dialogue with the folks there makes the actual working out part less of a chore and more like a visit with friends.

So if you love a particular class, make it a point to say hi to the instructor and share your fitness goals. That way, you’re expected to show up each week to meet them. Prefer to sweat by yourself at the gym? Introduce yourself to trainers and other gym regulars around the floor; chat with the guys and girls at the front desk. (Cavagnaro gets a “Sup, Big J?” from other early-bird exercisers at her gym.) The camaraderie will inspire you—as will a “Where have you been?!” if you disappear for too long.

Find (reliable) workout buddies

“Committing to a workout with a friend is a great way to make sure you get yourself out the door, as no one likes to let their friends down,” Oliver Lee, a personal trainer in New York City and a former Barry’s Bootcamp instructor (and one of my workout buds who I can always count on). 

Even if you don’t like working out with a partner, you can benefit from the support of like-minded friends and family, Cavagnaro says. “I work out alone, and that works best for me,” she explains. “But my husband and I are both passionate about the gym. We go to the gym together on weekends, separate for our workouts, and then meet up again after to walk home together.”

I also often times reach out to people with little gym “check-ins.” My mom and I, for example, cheer each other on via text, and we do this more often when the weather gets gross:

Commit to an early bedtime

As tempting as it is to stay up to watch one more episode of Stranger Things, powering down electronics and hitting the sheets at a reasonable hour is critical if you’re going to beat winter tiredness and make it to the gym. This is the right time of the year to turn in on the early side, when darkness and chilly temperatures make curling up under the covers so ideal.

“I can’t stress this enough to my clients, my students, or anyone else trying to have a productive day,” Cavagnaro says. “I could never do what I do without adequate rest and recovery time. I know my body and I know that I need at least eight hours of sleep to be a functional, productive member of society—and to have energy for my morning workout.”

Cavagnaro also suggests thinking of an a.m. workout as the ticket to an energized day, rather than something you need to find energy for. “My workout itself is like my morning coffee,” she says. “It starts my day, gives me the energy to get going, and sets up my day for productivity and success.”

Schedule workouts strategically

Sweating it out after work? Don’t leave yourself time to stop off at home first . . . and get sidelined by something great on TV or your never-ending social feed. “I tend to plan my workouts around times that I will be out of the house already, either on my way to a meeting or on my way home,” Lee explains. “That way, I’m already outside.”

Cavagnaro agrees: If she does have to hit the gym after school instead of at her typical 5 a.m. session, she brings all of her gear with her and goes straight from the classroom. “The motivation to go definitely dwindles down if you stop home, have a snack, have to change,” she says. “I find that going right from work to the gym, alleviates those ‘should I really go?’ thoughts.”

Talk yourself out of your excuses

There are still times I find myself in the comfort of my warm apartment coming up with every excuse in the book to avoid bundling up and mobilizing. When it happens, I like to remind myself of this: In the amount of time you will spend sitting around making excuses, you could be half way through a workout by now. (Slightly cheesy? Yes. But it works for me.)

I also ask myself what I would do in that time when I could be getting in a workout. Would I do a load of laundry? Would I meal prep for the next few days? Would I watch Sex and the City reruns? If I’m exhausted and know I’ll use the time to do something else productive, I cut myself some slack. But if my gut tells me I’ll waste the hour being lazy, I’ll get my butt off the couch and do something to crank my heart rate, even if that means walking on an incline on the treadmill for 15 minutes.

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