Christine Smith’s* secret to sticking with her exercise regimen is simple: a fear of pain. “I exercise because of injuries, says the Toronto-based 45-year-old mom of 3 who has been swimming consistently for 6 years. “The exercise I do is to maintain a fitness level and to prevent injury.”

Smith swims twice a week to ensure her muscles and ligaments are limber – and to protect her knees. “I have torn the menisci on both knees slipping on ice,” she says.

“Fear of injury motivates me. It gets me to the pool.”

While Smith faithfully follows her exercise regimen because she’s afraid of what might happen if she doesn’t, many people struggle with motivation and can’t stick to their workout, says Carolyn Box, a personal trainer with Outside the Box Fitness in Edmonton.

She says you need to look internally at what’s holding you back and to embrace those issues before you can successfully stick with your workout plan. Many of her clients do this while keeping up with their exercise plan.

“It’s doing internal work along with the external work that promotes lasting change,” says Box. “Change that is devoid of these 2 critical components is destined to fail. That’s why New Year’s resolutions do not last and they do not translate into long-term healthy change.”

Box says all too often people decide to change something about themselves as a new year dawns. “Typically, people resort to detoxes, diets, or torturous exercise regimes like high-intensity programs or running to lose weight,” says Box. She says this type of extremism can be a recipe for disaster, if you haven’t first determined the reason why you’re doing the exercise.

“People get caught up in black-and-white thinking,” says Box. “They’ve made the commitment to change without the understanding of their true motivation.”

Once that happens, the excuses begin, she says: “I’m too busy. My schedule has changed. This person needs me so I don’t have to time commit to this anymore.”

Be smart about your lifestyle

Box says staying away from fads is a good first step on the path to a healthier lifestyle. She says crazes like juice diets and elaborate workouts many seem appealing at first, but may not have staying power. Instead, she says a holistic, less-extreme approach is best.

“Exercise, good nutrition, stress reduction and self-awareness practices add up to success,” says Box. “It isn’t only 1 thing. The truth is that it is doing the simple things that we all already know, that adds up to good, long-term results.”

Here are 5 tips to help you stay on the fitness track:

  1. Find someone reputable. Box suggests finding a coach who is certified in nutrition, who can provide nutritional as well as exercise advice. “It’s very worthwhile to seek out a trainer who is educated on both biomechanics and programming as well as experienced,” she says. “Look for articles they have written or read their website for their education and experience. Make sure they have ongoing education.”
  2. Take it slow. “Don’t try to change everything at once. Pick 1 thing at a time and practice it for 2 weeks before adding in another,” she says. “For example, commit to eating meals without distraction. Then commit to eating until you’re only 80% full. After a month, add in a commitment to eating protein with every meal. Don’t strive for perfection. “
  3. Check in with yourself. Box suggests a once-a-week sit-down. “Ask yourself and write down the answers to these questions: ‘What have I put the most effort into? Where did I shine? What did I love about what I did, the most? How could I have improved?’” she says.
  4. Give yourself a high-5. Celebrate the success for the week in small ways that don’t involve food as a reward, or that won’t result in creating other unhealthy habits, says Box. Make this a bimonthly and then a monthly practice.
  5. Be realistic. Box says that perfection is impossible, so forget about always sticking to your plan. Falling off the wagon is an integral part of change. Get comfortable with the fact that it’s going to happen, she says. “Exercise is a habit. Habits are formed when they are done in a consistent manner.” She advises clients get a planner and write in the type and duration of exercise each day. “Write in the exercise sessions months in advance. Treat them like your job.”

Box says the process of achieving a healthier lifestyle will be a long one, so be realistic. “It’s going to take time and consistency to get there,” she says.

But the best motivator is feeling and seeing change. “Lasting change starts on the inside and effective work changes the outside,” says Box. “In order to stay engaged, you need both.”

*Name has been changed