three people on stationary bikes

Long-time athletes know that the hardest step in training is getting started. By the time you stretch into a second stride, you've already overcome the toughest hurdles: squelching the "you-can-exercise-tomorrow" voice, getting yourself off the couch and away from the computer, and putting your body into motion.

In any exercise program, motivation is crucial. Faithful gym-goers dread the January rush, when the well-intentioned embark dutifully on regular exercise programs. After a few months, most have lost the time and inclination to get into shape - until next year.

What's the difference between a gym rat and a workout wannabe? For some it's perseverance, for others it's health concern or the presence of a faithful workout buddy. Working out with a friend is powerful because it leverages an external voice with our inner laziness. On cold winter mornings or muggy summer evenings, lacing up your sneakers will help you and your friend stay healthy. Any excuse you have not to exercise will have to weather your friend's disappointment.

1. Workout with your work friends.
A group fitness plan can be even more powerful as post-office workouts or pre-lunch sessions are a way to combine fun and fitness. If you're a nine to fiver with enthusiastic coworkers and enough space, a workout after work can be an easy way to squeeze in some exercise. Though a work event may be more difficult to set up than a casual gathering would be (hint: ask HR for help), savvy workplaces often help to jumpstart a plan that will help employees manage stress and stay in shape.

2. Do it yourself.
Consider gathering a few close friends at a neighborhood recreation center or gym. Some cities have municipally funded recreation centers with a decent selection of machines and classes for lower costs than a private gym membership. Rounding up friends can be easier when there's a fun activity already in place. Classes in Pilates, yoga, and Zumba (Latin dance aerobics) are growing in popularity and don't usually require any prior experience.

3. Bring the gym home.
If you're a fitness nut with a large living area at home, host your own fitness event by compiling an array of workout DVDs, or streaming free fitness classes online. Be sure to advise your guests to bring supplies you can't provide, such as workout mats, balance blocks, or other tools. Family can be part of an exercise routine as well. Younger kids love "playing along" with parents who are exercising. Making workouts a part of your routine will ensure your kids do, too!

4. Fit fitness into your next family gathering.
If you're in charge of hosting holiday get-togethers or birthday parties, make fitness options available. Set out a couple of basketballs and a temporary hoop, rig up a badminton net, or stage a water balloon fight. While this won't provide regular workouts, it might help you identify fitness-starved relatives who'd like to work out more regularly.

It may take some time to cement a solid, workout-friend relationship, but once you do, you'll reap the benefits of an exercise program that forces you to make a plan to work out and stick to it.