If your motivation to exercise needs a boost, use your imagination – literally. Studies have found that practicing mental imagery can help people stick with their workout plans. “The great thing about imagery is that it is a strategy people can use whenever they want – and it costs nothing,” says Damian Stanley, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow specializing in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. Here are three techniques to try:

1. Tap into hope or fear. In a 2010 study from the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, participants who imagined a future version of themselves – either an ideal, fit self, or a feared, out-of-shape self – were more likely to continue exercising than those who didn’t use imagery, probably because it “got people thinking realistically about what it would take to achieve or avoid that self,” according to Kathleen Martin Ginis, PhD, study author and professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. 

Imagine yourself five to 10 years from now as either unhealthy and inactive, or healthy and active – both approaches were effective; pick the one that personally motivates you the most. Write each detail of how your life might be, including your appearance, relationships, energy level and attitude. Take time to do this any time your motivation lags.

2. Picture pleasure. A study from the March 2012 issue of the journal Psychology of Sport & Exercise found that “enjoyment imagery” increases motivation to exercise. When you think of exercise, picture yourself having fun, and focus on the things you like about it. The keys to using enjoyment imagery successfully are making it personally meaningful and relevant to you, and making it as vivid as possible, says Stanley, one of the authors of the study. “Make the image as clear as you can, and use all of your senses,” he suggests. “What will the environment look like? What will you be able to see, hear and smell in the environment?”

3. Improve your “can-do” attitude. Using imagery to "see" yourself dealing with barriers to exercise increases your chances of sticking with it, according to a March 2011 study that appeared in the journal Applied Psychology: Health & Well-Being. Study author Lindsay Duncan, a post-doctoral research associate at Yale University, advises focusing on obstacles that typically prevent you from exercising as planned – like those related to scheduling and planning, for instance – and imagining yourself finding and successfully applying a solution to each obstacle.