It all seemed to be going so well: you got up an hour early to go for a run or get to an exercise class before your workday started. Or maybe you brought a stuffed gym bag to your job so you could hit the fitness center at day's end.
These traditional plans for getting the physical activity we all need can work very well, month in and month out, for some people. For the rest of us, life can mess up our exercise routines, big-time. An injury, illness, children's schedules, demands at work, elders' needs, boredom, fatigue, a tightened budget—all can contribute to blocking our efforts to become, and remain, physically active.
Once that exercise block develops, finding the motivation to get past it is tough.
Yet, what if the problem isn't finding a bigger carrot (or stick)—what many people mistakenly call "motivation"—to force you back into exercising? What if the problem begins with how we think about the role of physical activity in our lives?
"Exercise has been a commodity instead of a process," says Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, a psychologist who's conducted studies on motivation and physical activity at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a philosophy of exercise for midlife women. The best plan, she says, begins with "deconstructing what exercise means … and then repackaging and re-creating it to what you, the individual, needs."
When you do that, Dr. Segar adds, you make physical activity fit your personality and life context. "It's very freeing," she says.
It also helps explain why her research shows that many women's main motivation for exercising—wanting to lose weight or change body shape—is a poor one. Her study found that women who cited those reasons as their motivation exercised about 40 percent less than women who were physically active to increase their sense of well-being or reduce stress or because they enjoyed the activity.
Facing your block
An important part of getting unblocked about exercise involves getting in touch with why you want to be physically active in the first place.
"If your reason is a 'should,' that's a recipe for not exercising," says Dr. Segar. To become more active or unblocked, "exercise has to be a nurturing activity and be about taking care of yourself…which often isn't going to the gym to get 40 minutes on the stair machine."
You may be thinking, "Yes, but my exercise block can't go away because of _____ (fill in the blank)." Fair enough. There are some events that pose significant challenges to motivation, such as illness, a loved one's death or a job or relationship loss.
In addition, there are mental roadblocks, such as feeling self-conscious about how you look when exercising or fearing injury. Overweight and obese women are more likely to limit themselves with these barriers than other women, according to research from Temple University in Philadelphia.
When a block arises, "the first step is just to accept that it's happened, recognize that you can't do anything about what has been, but you can do something about what happens in the future," says Amy S. Welch, PhD, an exercise psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University in Ames.
That doesn't mean you should just grit your teeth and push yourself to run three times a week.
"You need to take a look at what your current situation is and redo your exercise goals with respect to what is currently realistic," Dr. Welch says.
Evaluate what you do and don't have control over, she recommends. "Don't focus on the past. Focus on the here-and-now."
These suggestions can help motivate you past an exercise block:
- Do less, not more. It's important that physical activity feel good in order for you to enjoy it—which leads you to want to repeat it. Pushing yourself to start exercising at a high intensity or frequency rate or to match a previous high level, results in a negative experience and keeps you blocked. Instead, move more slowly and for shorter sessions. Activity can be accumulated over time and doesn't have to be vigorous to be worthwhile.
- "When you decide to do less, you do more," Dr. Segar says. "People have grandiose plans to do 40- or 50-minute workouts. If you understand that everything counts, you get more physical activity…(than before when) you wouldn't have done anything because you didn't have the full 50 minutes."
- Distraction helps. Dr. Welch's research shows that listening to music while exercising brings positive feelings because it activates the brain region that controls negative emotions. Lower intensity also produces a positive psychological state, so be sure to include a cool-down period after activity.
- Change your mindset. If you've been trying for years to lose weight by exercising and it hasn't worked—or you got only short-term results—maybe it's time to rethink the result you want. The goal you set is the starting point for your behavior, Dr. Segar explains. Motivation fuels that behavior, like gas stations on a road trip. If your goal changes to wanting to increase your feeling of well-being, you will be more likely to become more physically active in ways that fit your life, help you feel better and are more sustainable for the long-term. Your motivation is then less likely to be thrown off-track or become blocked.
- Be a good coach. Use positive self talk ("I feel proud of myself for doing this today.") while exercising and afterward, Dr. Welch advises. This helps improve your psychological experience of being active and encourages your decision to repeat the activity later. For more on how a positive approach can help you, go to Change Your Outlook, Change Your Life
- Take charge for yourself. Plan one do-able physical activity you think you might enjoy—a five-minute walk, say—and put it on your calendar. Or simply walk out the door and do it right away. Record it on a chart or planner when you finish. Then, if you feel good about that walk, schedule another of the same length for whenever you can next do it. Continue with that pattern of scheduling one activity session at a time and recording your successes.
- Cut yourself a break. If you fall off of your schedule, don't waste energy agonizing over what you "should" have done—just begin again with one activity session.
And don't think that you must join a gym or an exercise class to achieve motivation. Those external forces do little to sustain long-term physical activity for life.
"Saying I'm not motivated" is often a smoke screen for what's really going on—that I'm not motivated to do the type of exercise I think I'm supposed to do, in the way I'm supposed to do it," Dr. Segar contends. "The fitness boom marketed high-intensity aerobics to us, and we've been hit over the head with that…brainwashed to think that only certain things [types of exercise] count."
"You have to create your own physical activity," she says. "Then you're more likely to do it."