We all know that exercise is good for us so why aren’t we all super-fit already? Because no one can sustain their enthusiasm for exercise forever. No one. Even the best of us who manage to go through life and remain relatively fit have our low points, breaking points and the points when we feel like the whole world can burn for all we care.
We all have these days.
And this is where it happens - we lose our motivation. One low day or a week is perfectly normal and, arguably, even healthy. The problem with our low days is that, as we hide under our mental (or actual) blanket, we feel good. In contrast to the everyday struggle it feels ultimately better to simply do nothing. So getting back to what we remember as the discomfort and pain of training is hardly a cheerful prospect. It’s incredibly difficult to go back to feeling tired and sore all the time in the name of the greater good aka our health and fitness because all we have are the memories of feeling tired and sore.
Memories and associations are the key component here. That’s how our brain works - based on past experience we form associations and we feel either positive or negative about a particular event or activity. If we went out with some friends and we had a bad experience we will be reluctant to go out with them or go to the same place again. And if the experience continues to be negative, well, we might just stop going out altogether and stick to Netflix.
Our brains are reward driven. We eat a slice of cake and we feel good. There is an instant reward right there, consequences be damned. When it comes to exercise, though, there is just pain and soreness and then the memories of the pain and the soreness. There is but a promise of reward at a later date as it takes time to get fit and then even more work to stay that way. There are no guarantees just the possibility of getting fit and healthy if we work hard, somewhere down the road, perhaps. That’s why cake wins over a workout every time.
We can push, shame and force ourselves on a regular basis but no one can withstand continued misery forever. Everyone breaks eventually and then the cycle begins again. We force, we break, we start again - if we can bear it psychologically. One of the reasons we need a new diet or a new training system every single time (and every year there is one or even ten new ones to choose from) is because we haven’t formed those negative associations with the new shiny yet so we feel we can give it a shot hoping that this time it will be different. And every time it fails us because we continue to suffer and that suffering creates negative neural pathways in our brains making us more and more reluctant to repeat the experience.
So what can we do? We must form positive associations with exercise instead by using any and all tools at our disposal. If we feel good before, during and after exercise the reluctance to do it again becomes less and less over time. Eventually, we are able to sustain our fitness and that is the end goal.
Reduce the amount of pain
When we feel our motivation is slipping and we are losing any desire to exercise, we should reduce the amount of pain inflicted - even remove it completely. The moment we accumulate enough negative associations with exercise our self-preservation kicks in and our brain tries to keep us away from any further discomfort. It’s only natural to shy away from pain especially when it can be easily avoided. The way our brain sees it no more exercise means no more pain.
Remove the pain from the equation and the reluctance will lessen.
Task: Continue to exercise every day but significantly reduce the amount and/or the intensity of exercise until you no longer feel apprehensive about training.
Combine exercise with things you enjoy
That’s why so many of us listen to music when we exercise. We feel good when we listen to music we like and it helps us get through harder patches during our training session. It can sometimes help take our mind off the pain completely.
Training with others, people whose company we enjoy, has a similar effect. We can partner up with friends or family or a group of people with similar interests and exercise together. That way we focus on the social aspect of training and not on the struggle.
Watching a TV show during circuit training can take our mind off the pain as well. It can be a good idea to save all favorite shows and only watch them during training. That way we will have something more than just discomfort to look forward to.
We don’t always need a distraction but it helps every now and then to create better memories and associations.
Task: Aim to make every training session a good experience.
Use an instant reward system
It takes time to see results in the mirror. Health benefits of exercise go fairly unnoticed throughout life - we tend to notice when things go wrong with our body but we rarely pay attention to it when we feel fine. So there is no instant reward for exercise unless we add some artificially.
We can create badges or award ourselves stickers for completing workouts. Crossing out days in a calendar can also be incredibly satisfying as we get to measure our progress. We can get a jar and add a marble to it for each workout completed with a goal to fill it up by the end of the year. We have to create a reward system that works for us, that’s instant, something we get on completion of our workouts to compensate for the pain.
Food can be a powerful motivator, too. We don’t have to reward ourselves with cake, that would be counterproductive, but we can schedule our training so our breakfast, lunch or dinner comes directly post-workout serving as a reward for our struggle. Eventually our brain connects the two and we form positive associations with the physical activity.
Task: follow up exercise with an instant reward every single time to create positive associations.
Inoculate yourself to exercise
Most of us already have negative associations with exercise. We wouldn’t need motivational articles if we didn’t. So the moment we even start thinking of training all the negative emotions begin to come up to the surface, all the bad memories of pain and soreness come flashing back and in the end, we skip a workout because we just can’t do it today, or ever again.
When the negative associations are already formed it becomes really difficult to see exercise as anything but a painful barely tolerable experience. Over time we amplify it in our head beginning to remember it being worse than it actually was. Our memory is imperfect that way, sometimes all we remember is how we felt and if all we felt is discomfort we tend to find reasons to avoid repeating the experience even though logically we know it’s wrong.
Not all is lost however. Just because we already see exercise as an evil painful thing - it doesn’t mean we can’t change it. We can in fact rewire our brains - it just takes a little bit of effort and just like with anything worthwhile, consistency.
All we need is five minutes a day. We don’t even need to exercise all five minutes, we just need the commitment and a bit of exercise so we can slowly inoculate ourselves to it and teach our brain that it’s not always painful or difficult. All we have to do is show up, do something - anything, and do it every single day. This unassuming routine will make a huge impact on our psyche overtime. And eventually it will become a gateway to longer and more demanding sessions.
Task: do light training for five minutes, whatever happens, every day at the same time to teach your brain that it’s not always hard or painful to exercise.
Tipping the scales
It really doesn’t matter how hard we train if we seldomly do it. Consistency is the only way to get lasting, permanent results in how we look and feel. Unfortunately, finding the emotional strength to come back to exercise every single day is often a lot harder than the exercise itself.
It’s literally all in our head. It’s how we see training, our associations and connections in our brain. If all we expect is pain and suffering, we are unlikely to do it again and certainly we are unlikely to stick to it long term which is ultimately the goal with fitness.
In order to continue to stay motivated and be able to schedule and show up for our workouts we must tip the scales in favor of exercise so we can turn it into a desirable activity, something we look forward to rather than recoil from. In order to change our relationship with exercise we must create good memories of the experience using every tool at our disposal whether it’s instant rewards or gamification of the process, good music or good company or simply reduced physical stress and a better environment.
If all else fails, a routine that requires us to put in five minutes of exercise a day (that can be extended each time if desired) must be established. Everyone has five minutes to exercise - that five minutes may not sound like much but most of the time, it’ll be the gateway to longer and more demanding workouts in the future. And each time it will provide us with the opportunity to change how we feel about exercise, create positive associations - which will go a long way in changing our entire outlook and our willingness to do it again.
Staying motivated comes down to how we see exercise and what we remember about our last training session. Was it fun? Was the pain tolerable? Was there an instant gratification after? Did we enjoy at least some part of it? If the answer to all these questions is “Yes” more often than “No”, having the motivation to exercise regularly will never again be a problem.
SourcesThe Behavioral Neuroscience of Motivation: An Overview of Concepts, Measures, and Translational Applications.
The Neuroscience of Motivation
Study: Brain battles itself over short-term rewards, long-term goals
Motivation on the Brain PDF
Motivation, Reward and the Brain
Intrinsic Motivation and Self Determination