What can you do when you can’t find the motivation to exercise?

Exercise is one of the Six Pillars of Wellbeing that we have identified as a framework for taking care of your wellbeing on a daily basis, the others being Sleep, Social Connection, Meaningful Activity, Helping Others and Stress Management. Most of us know we should exercise. Many of us do, and some amazing people manage to do it regularly. No ifs, no buts. Exercise is a non-negotiable part of their weekly, or even (who are these superhumans?) daily part of their lives. 

The last year or so has been a particularly interesting time with regards to exercise. Sales of at-home fitness equipment have sky-rocketed. You couldn’t buy resistance bands or weights for love nor money at points last year. Suppliers were struggling to fulfill orders. With the closure of gyms, people were forced into new ways of exercising.  It seems like not a day went by without some publication or other discussing the top ways to work out at home, what kit you needed, the best apps, how to run properly etc etc ad infinitum. This is all well and good (and it is both), but I find myself asking: where has my motivation to work out, be fit, have a (very) vaguely chiseled physique, once so abundant, gone. 

I went through a period of about 2 years where I went to the gym 5 times a week. To be honest I became quite obsessed and it wasn’t entirely healthy. I was in the early stages of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, and working out filled the booze and drug shaped hole. I felt I had something to prove, and getting in shape allowed me to feel some sense of control when at times I felt totally out of control. Over the next few years, things became more balanced and I settled into a routine. I became less obsessive about how I looked, and more focused on how exercise made me feel.

Fast forward to 2021, having had a baby, been married for 2 years and mid-lockdown, I manage to exercise twice a week at best, and seem to have lost any interest in a healthy diet.  What happened?!

1. Be kind to yourself

Well, first off I think it’s helpful to understand that things change. It’s no good beating yourself up that you no longer exercise like you used to having just had a baby and not being able to go to the gym, go swimming, or do any of the classes you used to. Yes I could do online classes, go for a run and loads of other wonderful things (which I do from time to time), but many of the things I used to enjoy and can no longer (easily) do.  Be understanding. Try not to compare yourself to people you might see on social media who you believe (mistakenly or otherwise) have found the perfect exercise routines, are eating super-healthy and sleeping 8 hours of blissful sleep every night. That’s not real. Life is messy.  The only person it’s ever worth comparing yourself to is you.

2. Understand what motivates you

So, practically speaking, things have changed, but most importantly my motivation to exercise has decreased.  Motivation is paramount.  Everything we do is guided by underlying motivations and ambitions, by core beliefs about ourselves and the world. Everything. It’s worth asking yourself what your motivation for exercising is. I know that at times mine have been unhealthy.  Now it’s because I feel so much better after I exercise, I want to stay healthy, it helps me sleep better, and I’m not afraid to admit that I still want my wife to find me attractive. I don’t think I’m quite ready for a Dad bod. It may sound vain to some, but I’m ok with that.

Motivation will trump all external circumstances. If I was as motivated to work out as I was 5 years ago, no amount of lockdowns and babies would stop me working out obsessively, weighing my food and taking supplements!

Motivation ebbs and flows over the course of our lives, and that’s fine.  The reasons we want to do things change too.  Try to understand what motivates YOU, and to be understanding of yourself if you are going through a period when you just aren’t feeling it.

3. Do what you love

BetterSpace is all about finding the things that you love to do, and nowhere is this more important than with exercise. Maybe it’s relaxing yoga, maybe it’s playing football. It doesn’t have to be lifting weights or going for a run. Personally I hate running! It might just be going for a walk. Recent research has shown that walking is more beneficial than previously thought, and definitely counts as exercise.

4. Set realistic goals

I find it much more helpful to set myself realistic goals that may at first appear less than ambitious. Better to exceed your expectations than feel like you have failed in reaching your impossible goals. Start slowly and build from there. Maybe it’s just saying that you are going to move for 15 minutes everyday. Doesn’t matter what you do, just move your body! 

 5. Routine

Find some sort of routine.  People have been paying a lot of attention to habit formation recently, and there have been many good books written about it.  I know that for me, I have to exercise in the morning or I just won’t do it. If it gets past 9am and I haven’t done it, the best I’m going to do that day is go for a walk. We are all different, so find a time that works for you and try and stick to it.  Put in a slot in your diary to exercise and prioritise it. Make it a non-negotiable part of your day.

None of this is particularly ground-breaking or original thinking, but it works for me.  I’d love to hear about what works for you.

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BetterSpace is the first intelligent marketplace for mental health. We are on a mission to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace with a disruptive, holistic and expert-backed approach.

We focus on prevention and true cultural change, rather than the reactive approach that has contributed to the rising personal and financial cost of mental ill health.

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