It’s hard to do things that you don’t like to do. For many people, it’s a continual struggle to maintain a consistent exercise program. And given that progress is only possible through consistency, stopping and starting over and over leads only to frustration and makes real, lasting progress elusive.
If this sounds like you, don’t despair—there is hope. You are normal. I am the weirdo. I love exercise. For most people in the real world, this isn’t the norm. If you’re like most people, you’re simply trying to find a way to stay fit while devoting enough energy to everything else in your life as well. Exercise must be infiltrate—not dominate—your life.
One of the most important things you can do is to shift your thoughts and feelings about exercise. If you’re currently struggling, it doesn’t really matter how you got here. The only thing that matters is what you do now to keep yourself moving forward! Here are five ways to get you started in the right direction:
1. Remind Yourself of the Good Times
In the rush to get on with your day, have you ever stopped to notice how you feel after you’ve done something physical? What is your mood like? How does your body feel? The answers are always overwhelmingly positive. After your next workout, your next enjoyable walk or after anything physical, take a moment and either record a voice memo on your smartphone or jot down a few simple words on your calendar to describe how you feel. Even better, note (either electronically or on paper) how you feel before and after you exercise. Keep it handy or in a visible place and the next time you find yourself leaning toward skipping a workout, return to your reminder of how it made you feel.
2. Use Only Reduced-guilt Exercise
One of the worst things we can do is to feel guilty about skipping a workout. As kids, we are essentially selfish little monsters and the self-control parts of our brains don’t fully form until around age 25. Before that we need parental oversight to make us do what is right. The problem is we don’t stop treating ourselves this way once we are adults. If you miss a workout and try to guilt yourself into doing the next one, you are more likely to skip the next workout. And it’s easy to understand why.
Your brain will seek ways to avoid the negative, stressful, unpleasant emotions and experiences you’ve created surrounding exercise. Guilt actually de-motivates you. Forgive yourself and learn how to control the circumstances to make it easier for you to make the more desirable choice next time. You are only human and that means you are imperfect. This applies to exercise as much as it does any other area of life.
3. Build Your Willpower Muscle
Willpower is for those moments where you must power through and do what must be done. But willpower is finite and, once exhausted, needs to rest—just like any other muscle in your body. For many of you, your entire day is one long willpower endurance event aimed at avoiding doing what you feel you shouldn’t and do what you should.
Here’s the good news: You can build your willpower muscle with small, simple exercises that have nothing to do with exercise! Brush your teeth, open doors or carry bags with your non-dominant hand, put your pants on with the other foot first, etc. Small shifts in the way you do simple activities gives the self-control parts of your brain a little juice without exhausting them.
4. Set a Rule You Can Live With
When I ask clients, “How many days can you exercise per week?” they often give me the best-case scenario answer. Don’t do this to yourself. Set a rule for exercise that you can live with. Don’t tell yourself you’re going to exercise five days a week when deep down, you know that three days is more realistic. Set realistic rules for exercise and you’ll feel successful doing your three days per week instead of feeling bad if you do three days instead of five. It’s not lowering the bar so much as it is avoiding setting it so high that you cannot realistically get over it.
5. Make Your Interest Physical
If the idea of exercise is completely unappealing to you, then find some way to connect physical activity to something you enjoy. By finding a way to make your passions and interests physically active, you will begin to shift how you perceive physical activity.