Get – and Stay – Motivated to Exercise … When You Just Don’t Feel Like It

Brent Kastelic Chris Tse Gym

“Starting Monday, I’m going to start hittin’ the gym every day!” Sound familiar? How many Mondays have come and gone … with no sweat session ever materializing? With summer in full swing and holidays and special events coming up (It’s wedding season!), it’s no wonder that most of us want to get in better shape. We want to look good, feel good, have more energy…so why aren’t we super pumped to hit the gym? We know that exercise is good for us – everyone tells us that. What holds us back? Frankly, working out is hard work! Common challenges working out that I hear over and over in my practice are:

  • I’m too busy
  • I’m too tired after working or running around with the kids
  • Working out makes me tired
  • I hate running
  • I hate sweating
  • I have physical pain
  • I have bad knees
  • It’s too cold, it’s raining, it’s too hot, etc.
  • I don’t like being around people in the gym
  • Gym memberships are expensive
  • I have worked out before, and it doesn’t make a difference

Any of these challenges ring true for you? The fact is … these challenges are real! Working out can be stressful! However….NOT working out is stressing you out too, right? Common stressors from not getting physical exercise that I hear in my practice are:

  • I am so tired all the time
  • I have no energy to play with my kids/grandkids/pets
  • I know I need to get in better shape
  • I feel uncomfortable in my body
  • I can’t climb stairs/walk to the mailbox/walk a block without getting winded
  • I’m embarrassed
  • I used to love to be active
  • I feel so much better when I’m physically active
  • I feel bad about myself

The reality is, working out and NOT working out both cause stress in different ways. The difference is that physical exercise has the potential for benefits, and no exercise has no potential for long-term benefit. So in our efforts to avoid the discomfort and stress of working out, we just swap one stress for another -with no lasting benefit. Therefore, if we can’t actually avoid stress and discomfort, let’s make sure our discomfort is actually worth it!

What makes the pain and discomfort of exercising worth it? A common trap I see is “yo-yo” dieting and fitness regimens. Ever notice how when you have a clear, set fitness and/or weight loss goal (e.g., lose 10 lbs for a cruise), you work toward it feverishly until you achieve it…and then what? You celebrate (by lying by the pool and over-eating at the buffet)…and stop working toward the goal…because you already achieved it. This up and down yo-yo or roller coaster of motivation can be so frustrating and demoralizing. It is well documented that setting goals helps us to become motivated … but why is it so hard to stay motivated? The yo-yo trap highlights potential problems with focusing on setting and achieving goals without asking yourself, “WHY do I want to achieve this goal?” Why is this important to me? If the value of achieving a goal is not clear or meaningful, we are going to be less motivated to stick with it! Why would we put ourselves through pain, discomfort, and stress if we feel like it’s not really worth it, deep down? We wouldn’t. So we quit. Furthermore, if we only focus on setting and achieving goals, we constantly feel pressure to always be working on a goal. In North American society, we often get asked, “So what are you working on these days?” You can imagine, then, that if we ever take a break to rest, get sick, or get distracted by life, we feel guilty that we “fell off the wagon” toward reaching our goals.

The other trap I see is “all-or-nothing” thinking. We set rigid, strict goals for ourselves (e.g., “I’m going to run every day for 45 minutes”), and then as soon as real life gets in the way (e.g., you get the flu for a few days) and you can’t workout, we figure we blew it so we give up completely. What’s the point, right? And so begins the negative thought patterns and self-judgments: “I can’t stick with anything;” “I’m never going to be able to get in shape;” “I’m just lazy.” It’s pretty hard to want to work out when you are feeling bad about yourself, so the cycle continues.

How do we break free from these traps? I recommend taking a different approach to goal-setting. Rather than focusing on rigid goals, try focusing on the value driving that goal. Values are those strengths, qualities, principles that are important and meaningful to you in life that you want to cultivate in yourself and in your life. Values are things like mental health, a sense of balance, cardio-vascular health, having energy, being physically fit, etc. A value is something that can’t be checked off or completed. It’s something you are always working toward – every day. You can’t “achieve” a sense of balance, for example, and then be done working on it. It’s something we continuously work on to maintain it. Values provide us with a sense of direction and help us make choices. When we focus on values, we find ourselves with an endless variety of goals along the way to help us stay on track. So for example, if you value a sense of balance, you can ask yourself what is something I can do today that is in line with that value? Perhaps you take a yoga class or go for a walk. If you aren’t feeling well, what is something small you can do that moves you closer toward balance? Can you muster the strength for a hot shower? By focusing on values, we have more options and greater flexibility. We ask ourselves why do I want to put myself through this? Is there another way to work toward this value? If you can’t run 45 minutes today, can you walk for 5 minutes? Greater flexibility means less all-or-nothing thinking and beating ourselves up, and an endless supply of ideas for goals! No matter what you choose to do, at the end of the day, you can feel like you took one step closer towards what really matters to you. And that feels good.

Working out and being physically active has added value beyond looking good in clothes and being more fit. Research findings have consistently shown that physical exercise not only helps prevent and treat physical disorders such as heart diseases, diabetes, and cancer as well as help in weight loss and health weight maintenance, but also is a healthy and significantly effective treatment for mental health disorders. In fact, many studies have provided strong evidence that exercise is both preventative and therapeutic, and the benefits of exercising are at least just as effective – and can be more effective – than psychiatric medications (like antidepressants) and psychotherapy/counselling (Dowd, 2004, Walsh, 2011). Specifically, research findings highlighted in a Harvard medical report show that exercise benefits last longer than antidepressant effects for people diagnosed with depression.

I encourage everyone to think about what is important to you in terms of your physical and mental health and ask yourself what are you willing to do for that value? What inspires you to be better? Are you willing to be a little uncomfortable? Chances are, you more uncomfortable and stressed out by not living your values. If you don’t quite feel up to a major sweat session at the gym today, what’s the smallest step you can take? You are one step closer. What’s it worth to you?

References and Further Reading:

Walsh, R. (2011, January 17). Lifestyle and Mental Health. American Psychologist. Advance
online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021769

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