Once upon a time, just surviving on planet Earth was strenuous enough that human beings didn't need formal exercise to stay in shape. In the distant past, mammoth-hunting was a real calorie-burner; and until very recently, even office jobs required people to occasionally stand up and walk down the hall to hand-deliver a memo.

Now, thanks in large part to the digital economy and a dwindling pedestrian culture in the U.S., pretty much none of us move as much as we should—and studies repeatedly show that it's not good for us, particularly as we get older. But despite being well-versed in the importance of getting more exercise, many people struggle to make it a part of their daily lives, let alone a part they enjoy.

Here's how you can start transforming your workouts from a miserable requirement into something you actually look forward to.

1. MAKE IT SOCIAL. 

Studies show that workout buddies can be a powerful asset for those with couch potato inclinations (because everything is more fun with friends). But what if you can't find someone who wants to be your date to the gym four times a week? Actually, there's an app for that.

But you don't need a designated "buddy" to tap into the magic of social motivation. From connecting with your friends on MyFitnessPal to joining fitness challenges on Instagram, there are dozens of ways to make exercise a social event. And offline, the people you run into every week at the squat rack or in your favorite group exercise class are a built-in community. Befriend them, and voila! A new reason to look forward to your workouts.

2. THINK OUTSIDE THE TREADMILL. 

The best exercise program is one you enjoy sticking to. So if you enjoy legging out five miles on an elliptical while watching Real Housewives on the gym TV, then hey, more power to you. But if not, then realize that exercise doesn't have to happen in the gym, or even to be billed as "a workout," to be worthwhile. Maybe you'd prefer to get moving at your local dance studio, with a ballet, hip-hop, or ballroom class. Martial arts like Krav Maga or Brazilian jiu jitsu will give you an incredible workout and a useful new set of skills; so will circus arts like aerial silks or acrobatics. An hour a day of free jump at the trampoline park? Yep, that counts. And at this time of year, just about anything you do outside—from skiing to skating to shoveling snow—doubles as serious exercise.

3. MAKE YOUR EXERCISE TANGIBLY REWARDING—NOT JUST THEORETICALLY "HEALTHY."

Personal trainer Dick Talens explains that the most important element of any workout program is a "positive feedback loop." In other words, an ideal exercise regimen should show progress, making you want to keep going for the sake of seeing more progress. Knowing intellectually that it's good to lift weights three times a week won't motivate you to hit the gym when you're tired and sore and don't feel like leaving the comfort of your couch—but looking back at your records from two weeks ago and seeing yourself getting stronger? That'll do it. 

In practice, this means finding a way to exercise that lets you see how you improve, especially if you don't enjoy exercising for its own sake. So whatever you're doing, give yourself small, achievable goals to strive for: setting a new deadlift personal record; finally lifting your feet off the ground and balancing in crow pose; or seeing yourself log new distances in a structured program like Couch to 5K.

4. REMEMBER: THE BEST TIME TO EXERCISE IS ANYTIME.

Many experts recommend working out in the morning, simply for consistency's sake: Exercising first thing means it's done before you can put it off. But unless you're a hardcore athlete who's experimenting with fasted workouts and nutrient timing, the most important thing about exercise is simply that you do it—anytime, anywhere, any way that works for you. And the best workout is one that you not only enjoy, but are awake enough to put real effort into. So if you're not the type to get up at the crack of dawn for Zumba, but you are the type to sling kettlebells around your living room at midnight to a steady soundtrack of disco hits, then there's absolutely no reason to do what doesn't come naturally.

All images courtesy of iStock