Ask an expert: The secrets of successful exercisers

Q: “Who are these people who fit exercise into their daily lives like it's the most natural thing in the world, while I struggle to start a new program every January, only to lose my motivation by February? What do they know that I don't know? How can I be more like them?”

Answered by Tammy Lundervold, BS, ACSM, coordinator, Providence Fitness & Wellness Services

Some active people are just born that way – but you probably don't want to hear that. What you'll be happier to hear is that the rest of them have some key things in common that help them stay motivated and committed – strategies that you can learn and adopt yourself to become more like them.

Here are six common traits that help steady exercisers stick with it long after the resolution dust has settled:

They have found their intrinsic motivation.

Regular exercisers have discovered their own intrinsic motivation – that inner drive that compels them to make activity a priority in their lives. For some, the motivation may come from the desire to stay active for their children or grandchildren. For others, it may stem from concerns over a recent health diagnosis, the promise of fewer problems from a chronic condition, or simply the pleasure that comes from feeling healthy and energetic. Whatever their motivation to stay active, they've decided it's so important that they won't let anything get in its way.

What is it that motivates you so deeply to want to become a regular exerciser? Use that motivation to treat exercise like the other important things in your life. For example: Love music? When you buy concert tickets, you have to make an extra effort – hiring a sitter, planning an early dinner – to organize your life so that nothing prevents you from making it to that concert. Enjoy travel? When you commit to a vacation, you have to get all of your work done ahead of time, stop the mail, arrange for pet sitters and make all kinds of other preparations to make it happen – but it's so important to you that you do it. If you're going to stick with exercise, it has to be that important.

They choose activities that they enjoy.

Regular exercisers set themselves up for success by choosing activities they enjoy. Society may be sending you messages about what you “should” be doing, but this is for you – choose something that you've always wanted to do.

No one says you have to work out in a gym. If your job keeps you cooped up inside all day, you might prefer something that gets you outside, like a walk or a bike ride. Like to dance? Turn up the music and work on your moves. Is there a team sport you enjoyed as a kid? See if you can find an adult league or a local drop-in game; several are offered through county parks and recreation departments.

They break down big goals into small, obtainable goals.

Regular exercisers often have big goals – running a marathon, training for a walk to support cancer research, losing 40 pounds and keeping the weight off. Those big goals are always in the back of their minds, but they don't dwell on them. What they focus on every day are the tiny steps – the small goals they can achieve today, tomorrow and the next day to keep them moving toward their larger goals.

If your goal is to run a marathon, and you focus only on that 26.2-mile goal while running two really hard miles, discouragement will set in quickly and you'll never make it to the marathon. But if your small-step goal, just for today, is to run two miles, and you push yourself to achieve that – victory! You are a winner, and one step closer to tomorrow's goal of 2.25 miles, and to your ultimate goal.

They put backup plans in place for getting around obstacles.

Just as those regular exercisers plot out the route toward their goals, they also prepare a Plan B and Plan C for the obstacles and detours that will show up – and they absolutely will show up – to try to derail them.

Think about the barriers that have prevented you from sticking with exercise in the past: bad weather, joint pain, not enough time, not enough energy. Now prepare and rehearse a backup plan for each one of these. Write down your plans, as well as your backup plans. Putting them in writing makes it more likely that you'll follow through.

They start by getting some coaching.

All the motivation and planning in the world will get you only so far if you don't have the skills for the activities you've chosen. Many of the regular, lifelong exercisers out there have invested in professional coaching or training – even if it's just a couple of sessions to learn some basic skills and proper form. If you're new to an activity, I encourage investing in training right up front to help you start out on the right foot.

Before hiring coaches or trainers, ask for a 10-minute get-to-know consult to make sure they are compatible with you and your goals. Ask them what their background is. Do they seem comfortable talking to you about your goals, or do they seem to have their own agenda for the conversation? If you have medical concerns, do they have the credentials to help you with your individual needs? If you're not comfortable, for whatever reason, find someone else.

They keep it fun.

By acting on their deep motivation, engaging in activities that they enjoy, accomplishing small goals every day, making visible progress toward their big goals, and developing the skills to feel accomplished at something physical, successful exercisers achieve something you might not have thought possible during exercise: They have fun.

You can, too. Invite friends to join you. Get to know others who enjoy the same activities. Reward yourself for your successes. Log your daily, weekly and monthly exercise miles or hours and pat yourself on the back for each milestone reached. Keeping it fun is probably the most important way to keep yourself motivated and committed for the long haul. If it's not fun, you won't stick with it – there are plenty of other obligations you need to meet every day. But this is something that's just for you. Enjoy it.