Maintaining motivation to exercise

TL;DR: Motivation to exercise is a mental game, and life is more mentally challenging these days. We’re all struggling with hard things a bit more often than normal, and exercise is no exception. Sometimes considering what keeps us unmotivated is enough to turn things around. Also, it’s ok to take it easy and be nice to yourself.  

How to maintain motivation to exercise? What a great question. This year has been hard on a lot of people, in a lot of different ways. And even though the emphasis on self-care has grown exponentially (even more than pre-2020!), emphasizing the importance of something doesn’t automatically make it easy. So what does?

Rather than jump in with advice – easy to give, but often also easy to ignore – we all might get more value out of reverse engineering our motivations, starting with why we aren’t feeling motivated much at all. (I’m saying “we” here as I’m solidly in this boat as well!) 

I think there are a few factors here that could help to understand why we struggle with motivation to exercise, especially in : 

  1. The feeling of Why Bother
  2. Things are harder to do right now
  3. We’re out of routine (even if we aren’t anymore)
  4. It’s so much work

Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time with my psychologist talking about my avoidance of things and the ensuing guilt. One of my biggest lessons has been learning to be kind to myself, and treat myself the way I would treat any of my clients. That means STEP ONE is accepting my starting points, and being ok with starting almost from scratch. From there, depending on what roadblock I’m feeling, it becomes easier to flip the “don’t wanna” to the “ok, sure”. 

Why Bother Exercising?

For me, it’s all about feeling better. When I’m not working out regularly, I feel gross. I call it fat-n-floppy, which reflect my physical discomfort rather than any aesthetic or judgement. Using exercise to feel better means I get a physical boost (anywhere from just the “fresh” feeling post-cardio to the lack of back pain when I get my glutes switched on!) as well as a mental boost. 

What I’ve also realised is that it doesn’t take much exercise at all to feel better. It’s much easier to talk myself into five or ten minutes of movement than forty minutes to an hour. It’s the silver lining of lost fitness: Less time to a solid workout. 

Why did you start to exercise in the first place? Does that reason still exist? If it doesn’t, is there something else that you miss about exercise, or maintaining a specific level of fitness? 

Things Are Harder 

Time to get creative. When I was a new exercise physiologist, I was really set on having squat racks, chin up bars, a bench, and a good set of dumbbells before I could get into the groove. I didn’t really have the tools in my mental toolbox to be creative. 

Now is the time to get more creative. 

Fortunately, lots of people are out there doing the thinking for us. We can find workouts designed for doing at home, short workouts for when we are time-poor, workouts that use DIY weights, all sorts of things. Just because we don’t want to (or aren’t able to) access places and things that we’re used to, like the gym, or reasonably priced weight sets, doesn’t mean we’re stuck and out of luck. 

Out Of Routine

This is definitely the year of things not going as expected! We’re all (still) learning to adjust to… 2020. Bring out of routine, and trying to find a new routine, actually takes a lot of brain power. Using a lot of brain power saps your physical energy, which might very well explain why you’re so tired after working all day at home without any of your normal “work day” activities like… going to work. Your brain might be scrambling to figure out what the heck is going on. 

“Be nice to yourself” falls into this category too. When you’re mentally exhausted or emotionally drained, it’s tough to peel yourself off the couch for a workout. This is normal. 

If you’re looking to add some sort of exercise to a new spot in your routine, do this: 

  1. Think about when you’ll get the most feel-good benefit from it (morning, midday break, before bed, etc) and when you’re most likely to do it. 
  2. Come up with a few workouts to pick from, including easy and tough ones, and then mix and match as needed. If you had a really big day or are feeling really flat, take it easy and stretch out or jump on the foam roller. If you’re feeling like you want to burn off some anxiety or stress, pick a hard workout. 

Planning these things ahead means not having to worry about it in the moment, which means you can just get on with it. Maintaining your motivation to exercise just got a whole lot easier.

Working Out Is… So Much Work

There’s no getting around this one! Oh wait, actually there is. Turns out that even “gentle” exercise like splashing around in a pool or going for a walk gives you a mental and physical boost. 

Behaviour change science tells us that the hardest part of starting a new habit is actually the starting. Once you’re going, it’s nowhere near as tough to keep going. You don’t have to smash yourself every session. You don’t have to smash yourself at all. Interestingly, there is even evidence that low intensity, frequent movement is more beneficial for long-term quality of life. 

Finally, what I’m really saying with all of this: Maintaining motivation to exercise can be challenging at the best of times. It’s ok to not always be motivated, and it’s ok to be not-motivated and do just a little. Five minutes of movement is 100% more than zero minutes of movement, and it might just be enough to get you back in the groove.

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