How Do You Stay Motivated When it Comes to Exercise?

Hannah Wallace explores the age-old question of how to stay motivated when it comes to our exercise routines.

By Megan McDonald December 18, 2012

By Hannah Wallace


A doctor once told me, “Exercise. If you don’t have energy? Exercise without energy. If you don’t have motivation? Exercise without motivation.”

This time of year especially, it’s easy to find excuses not to exercise. Advice for accomplishing things often centers on goal-setting—a target weight, a distance to run or a time to run it in.

Goals don’t always help me though—it’s too easy for me to change my mind, and too easy to get discouraged when my goals aren’t met by a single, effortful workout. In my weird, pathologically insecure brain, goals only serve to emphasize what I’m not accomplishing. I’m pretty short-sighted like that. I seek immediate gratification.

So I like the doctor’s advice; it lowers the expectations. It is a singular, immediate goal—exercise—and with even less pressure since you don’t even have to exercise well.

I spent my whole childhood—up until 21—being coached, and in soccer, the coaching involves a lot of straight-up conditioning—pretty similar to the kind of exercise and “in shape” most of us aim for in our recreational routines. Basically, I always worked toward someone else’s goals, someone else’s approval, to know I was doing a good job. “I didn’t think I could run 12 sprints, but he told me to, and I did it, and now I’m glad I accomplished what he told me to do.”

Transitioning to unmonitored exercise is hard, because there’s always the voice in my head saying, “But what if he actually wants you to run 13 sprints? You’re not going to be doing enough.” The voice that was there to push me beyond my perceived limits never patted me on the back and told me I was done.

I didn’t even know what I was working so hard for, just that I wasn’t working hard enough.

It’s hard to explain this as a problem—pushing yourself is good, after all—but you never want exercise to be discouraging, and on the days where I just didn’t feel like I could get a good workout in, I’d be grumpy and guilty and unsatisfied. Sometimes I’d avoid exercise altogether so help stave off the feeling of quitting mid-workout.

“If you don’t have energy? Exercise without energy.” That’s the kind of thought that gets me off the couch. Maybe I’ll jog a half a mile thinking, “I don’t have the energy, but it’s ok, I’m exercising.” If it really is a bad-workout day, I can give myself credit for something instead of nothing. But more often than not, by the time I get to that half-mile mark, I’ll start to feel like I had more energy than I thought I did. And at that point, the rest of the workout feels like extra credit.

Photo above: Me at IMG Academies, doing research for a story about getting and staying fit with some of our area's top trainers. Look for it in our January issue, online and on newsstands soon.

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