If you're like most people, those exercise resolutions you made at New Year's are just a distant memory. In fact, seven out of 10 Americans can't make exercise a habit, despite their best intentions. That's because the most common reasons for starting an exercise program-to lose weight in time for a reunion, for example-are weak long-term motivators.

But you can learn to motivate yourself to make exercise a regular part of your life. Elite athletes as well as everyday people who have made a successful commitment to life long fitness use these insider tips. Here are their secrets...

Make your first experience positive. The more fun and satisfaction you have while exercising, the more you'll want to pursue it and work even harder to develop your skills. Even if your first experience was negative, it's never too late to start fresh. Choose a sport you enjoy, and work to improve your skill level.

The key is finding a strong beginner-level coach who enjoys working with novices. For instance, the YMCA offers beginner swim lessons, and instructors are armed with strategies for teaching in a fun, nonintimidating way.

If your friends have a favorite dance class, play racquetball or practice karate, ask them for a referral to an approachable teacher. City recreation departments also often host beginner-level classes for a variety of indoor and outdoor activities. You might also try a private lesson. The confidence you gain will motivate you to try it out in a group setting next.

Focus on fun, not fitness. Forcing yourself to hit the gym four times a week sounds like a chore, and you'll likely stop going before you have the chance to begin building your fitness level. But lawn bowling, dancing, Frisbee throwing, hiking, even table tennis those all sound fun, and you'll still be getting physical activity that helps promote weight control. .. reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer... stronger bones... and improved mood. As you start to have more fun, you'll want to become more involved and your fitness level will improve over time.

No strategy is more crucial than this: Get hooked on the fun, and you'll get hooked on the activity for life.

Find your competitive streak. We all have one, and you can tap into it, no matter what activity you choose. Jogging outside? Make it a game by spotting landmarks in the near distance, like trees or homes, and push yourself to pass them in a certain number of seconds. Swimming laps? Try to match the pace of the slightly faster swimmer in the next lane. Or keep track of the time it takes to swim 10 laps, and try to beat your time. Even riding the recumbent bicycle at the gym can be turned into a competition by moving your workout to the spin studio, where you can privately compete against· other class members for pace or intensity.

Practice the art of the con. If you've ever overheard a pair of weight lifters in the gym, you'll recognize this tip: The spotter encourages the lifter, "One more, just one more!" and then after the lifter completes one more lift, the spotter again urges, "Now one more!" Make this tip work for you by learning how to self-con. Let's say you're too tired to work out. Tell yourself, I'll just drive to the gym and park. If I'm still tired, I can leave. This is often enough to kick-start your workout. And while swimming laps, tell yourself you'll just do five, then two more, then just three more.

Cultivate a mind-set of continuous improvement. Tennis great Jimmy Connors once shared what keeps athletes motivated-"Getting better." Lifelong exercisers have a yearning to improve that acts as both a motivator and a goal.

Help yourself get better by educating yourself about your sport. To do this, read books by or about professional athletes... read articles about them in magazines, newspapers and online... and even book a private lesson to have your running gait/golf swing/basketball shot analyzed.

Also, offer yourself rewards for hitting certain benchmarks. Treat yourself to a massage after your first three months of walking your dog nightly for 30 minutes... or book a trip to a luxury ski lodge to celebrate your first year of skiing. You earned it!

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