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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

How to get motivated to exercise when you just don't feel like it

The time has come. You promised yourself you’d do cardio today. It needs to be today, you’re far too busy over the next couple of days. You can’t outsource this one! If you’re going to make that goal you were so committed to, it has to happen. But, you feel so flat. Flat as a tack. That abundance of motivation that recently flowed through you with such ease is a distant memory. A workout is the last thing you feel like doing. Getting started, let alone exercising at decent intensity, feels next to impossible. Those days will happen. It’s not a matter of if but when. Motivation is a fickle beast and we all have our good and bad days. How you deal with that apathetic, listless state will go a long way to determining if you get the results you want. There is no 1 strategy that works, but here are a few different ideas for 'getting it done' when it all feels too hard.

Focus on the short term payback

People who exercise regularly at a moderate or greater intensity will tell you how reliable it is for boosting mood and energy levels. It's counter intuitive but often to get energy you've got to expend some. Countless times I've felt my state transform from sluggish and pessimistic, to vibrant and positive, from just 20 minutes of exercise. The payback is greater than the time invested too- a solid 20 minute workout can lift you for a couple of hours. It does wonders for many different physical systems, as I said to someone recently- "It's like free drugs!" Actually it’s better than that- no nasty come down, the side effects are all positive and you don’t need a prescription, or a dealer! When you're in that low motivation funk an uplifted state seems way beyond reach, but with some effort and persistence you can get there surprisingly fast.

Start/chunk it down

Starting is often the hardest part. Ultra-marathoner Pat Farmer would often struggle with training for the herculean task of running around Australia. He'd tell himself to just put his shoes on, as anything beyond that was too daunting, then tell himself to walk to the front gate, then jog slowly to the end of the street and so on and so forth, till eventually he found a rhythm and was on his way. Try just starting and then aim for something small, like just 2 minutes of exercise. You may just surprise yourself as a great workout unfolds.

Use what you can to get your workout started

Use music, as it definitely helps with exercise motivation and performance as this article highlights (although you probably don’t need to get as precise or specific as it suggests!). Caffeine can also of course lift you, although there are mixed views on the health benefits and individual sensitivity to the stimulating effects. Consider how much you currently drink and how it fits within the context of your overall diet, lifestyle and health issues. Another freely available option is your imagination. I saw 15 time Australia's Strongest Man, Derek Boyer motivate a former soldier to get through a Strongman style training session by having him imagine the fate of a dozen people depended on him lifting a very heavy stone multiple times. That may seem extreme if you're exercising for health or recreation, but you get the idea- the power of the mind and imagination can take you a long way! Trick yourself, fool yourself, try things.

Review how hard your program is to start

The Law of Least Effort is basically that we avoid effort. If things aren't accessible or straight forward we tend to not do them. If you're watching TV and there are chocolates on a table in front of you, as opposed to the nearest available being a 3km drive away. Clearly you're much more likely to eat the chocolate within arm’s reach. In the same vein, if starting a workout takes many steps- such as setting up lots of equipment and putting on specific clothes- it’ll be effortful and likely too much to bear if you're feeling flat. A long or complicated journey to where you exercise has the same effect. This could be why so many people find regular local walks a sustainable habit, as there's no elaborate set up process. Think of how you can make exercise easy to begin.

Modify it? Skip it?

If motivation is low because you’re tired it’s wise to modify or even skip exercise. High intensity or long workouts put further strain on an immune system that could be already compromised. Battling through can run you down, and once sick and forced to rest, you risk getting out of the groove of exercising. It’s a knock on effect which won’t help with motivation. Lethargy, sore throat and heavy eyes can be signs you need to back off on exercise. Perhaps you’re a little depressed- in which case exercise may well be useful. Going easy on yourself and easing off on the difficulty level could be smartest and most effective. Self-awareness is key. Noticing how your body usually feels at different times of day and when faced with the prospect of a workout, really helps give a sense as to whether you should modify or skip exercise. It can be tricky to know when, but if you’re health and fatigue levels are fine, pushing through with a workout can be a fast track to feeling so much better. It’s great for developing understanding of how and when to get through the flatness. Plus it’ll create belief in your ability to do so.

Are you finding exercise too hard, long or unenjoyable?

If you're regularly flat and uninspired before exercising it could be it's too hard or long or unenjoyable. It's got to be a match for your levels of fitness and drive. If you consistently have to summon great will power to face up to workouts something isn’t right. Hating the type of exercise or the training environment isn’t helpful for ongoing motivation either. That’ll turn it into a real chore and since you don’t absolutely have to do it, well after a while, you won’t. You don’t have to love the exercise you do, or where you do it, but if you at least like it there’s a stronger chance you’ll be motivated to do it. Look to find ways of making it enjoyable. Good company and a pleasant environment are 2 simple things you have choice over.

Remember it's worth it- reflect on the bigger reason for exercising

I can't imagine a bride regretting working hard in the gym while standing at the alter having lost 5kg. Take a moment to fully consider the end goal - the why. Focus on the feeling once you've reached that goal, and what it’ll mean to you. Something like being able to play with your children without your body holding you back could be a powerful driver. It could be that feeling of confidence that comes with being comfortable in your body in a particular setting or context, like the beach or sports field. Whatever the feeling is, it can drive you and inevitably it's what makes pushing through, on the days when you just don't feel like it, more than worthwhile.

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