Happiness is my motivation

How to stay motivated to exercise when you don’t feel like it

My motivation to exercise comes and goes. I know I should exercise most days, but so many things get in the way. Like thinking, “I’ll get all sweaty and my hair will be horrible.” Or, “I have to put the new village stickers on my car.” Or, “I have to clean out my closet.” My closet has a ton of really nice clothes that I never wear. Yes, I’ve read my own organizing tips. I’ve even started to winnow out the stuff that I love, the stuff that I can’t bear to part with, the stuff that’s worn and the stuff that I can’t stand. I start, but never end because it’s all stuff I can’t bear to part with. One day. But my motivation to exercise comes and goes, and then comes back. Because I decided long ago that no matter what else is going on, I will exercise at least four days a week. That’s non-negotiable. Four days a week no matter what.

You’re not going to do it unless you love it. Unless…

You can decide to exercise, but unless your motivation to exercise is secure, you’re not going to do it unless you love to exercise. First step, then, in how you stay motivated to exercise, is to figure out what motivates you. What will make you keep on lacing up your sneakers day after day. Because one day is not enough. In order to get any benefits from exercising, you have to keep at it. And you’ll want to quit after the first session. It’s hard, but as they say, anything worth doing is hard. It will get easier, but you need to keep at it to get there. So, how will you stay motivated to keep exercising?

What is YOUR motivation to exercise?

Is your motivation to exercise your family? Will you keep on exercising to keep up with the family? Will you keep exercising so you can play with the little ones? To be able to work in your garden? Or will you exercise to be a strong partner? You need that strength and stamina to hold family get-togethers. Is that why you exercise?

Or is it for your healthy aging? One thing that scares many people of a certain age is holding onto your memories.It’s been proven that exercise will help you boost memories! That’s certainly a big motivator. My memory isn’t great to start with, so I appreciate any advantage!

What motivates me to exercise is the happiness I feel afterward.

What motivates me the most, though, is the happiness that comes after I work out. I don’t stay motivated because I’m happy to be exercising. No. After I exercise, though, I feel more optimistic. I’m grateful to be able to exercise. I’m happy after I exercise. Experts call it an endorphin rush. I call it happiness. Even though the most endorphins are released when we do intense aerobic exercise, I still find that I experience the same effect when I do Pilates, for example, or another low intensity workout. 

I don’t feel like exercising often. In fact, I hardly ever want to exercise. But I stay motivated to exercise when I don’t feel like it. And I lace up those sneakers.

Don’t be afraid to take it slow

Two nights a week I teach Rally Obedience. Rally is kind of an esoteric sport for dog enthusiasts. It builds on basic obedience and requires some basic fundamentals so that you and your dog can successfully navigate a sort-of obstacle course. But instead of obstacles, you and your dog perform certain behaviors indicated by a sign. The most important skill to have is your dog “heeling” at your side – that is, your dog’s head stays even with your left leg as you walk. Training can take a while to be successful at Rally. I always tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to take it slow.” You’ll be even more successful when you get there!

Patience and Consistency

Don't be afraid to take it slow - at first

Many dogs have a tendency to forge ahead and pull their owners with them. It takes patience and consistency to train “heel” so that it looks and feels effortless for both of you. The way I like to train this is that when the leash gets tight and the dog starts to pull, you stop. Just stop. When your dog comes back to you to find out what’s going on, reward your dog for coming back to “heel position.” Easy. Just stop. Over time your dog will learn that being at your side is the best place in the world, because that’s where he gets the cookies.

Don’t be afraid to not get anywhere … at first

As in dog training, so in life. Don’t be afraid to not get anywhere! Even though it took one of my dogs and me three weeks of daily practice to get 20 feet from the house to the front sidewalk, we eventually went on to compete and gain obedience titles! Don’t be afraid to take it slow.

Don’t try so hard. If one of your goals is to do 25 regular push-ups, don’t be afraid to start easy. There’s always a modification so that you can build your strength. Start with 5 with your hands on a sturdy coffee table. Tomorrow do 6, the day after 8. Next week, after 7 days doing all your repetitions on an incline, try for 2 on the floor. Break up that big goal into smaller ones.

Remember the tortoise?

Researchers Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer have found that what keeps people going – even high-powered scientists working on life-and-death projects – is that they make progress every day. Achieving small goals is still achieving goals. “Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.”

Achieving those small wins will make you feel happier and more optimistic. It feels so good to check something off that list!

Celebrate every step along the way

That tortoise just put one foot in front of the other consistently and beat the hare. Don’t be afraid to take it slow – whatever “it” is. Celebrate every step. Accumulate your small wins every few days and make a note for your “Amazing Box.” You’ll get there.

Make your motivation more clear

I’ve said that in order to achieve your goals, you have to set goals. Many of us are frozen in that limbo of knowing that you want something … more … but not knowing exactly what it is you want. You’re unhappy with your current situation and want to change it but have no clear picture of what you’d like your situation to actually be. You just know that you want … more. That’s a problem if you really want to change your reality. My suggestion, which I’ve done multiple times over the years when I decided I wanted more – make your motivation more clear. Set aside some time – 15 minutes to a half hour – and get a pad of paper and a pen. And start thinking.

Start big, then work your way down

Think about your life – where it is now: your family, friends, work, home. Then think about how you feel about these aspects of your life. Figure out what makes you most unhappy. What about it makes you unhappy? Can you change that thing right away? If you can’t change that thing right away, how can you start doing small things to create something that makes you happy? 

Think about “What if…”

Many of us flounder with our motivations. We think, “I’d really like to …” But that’s not enough. A statement that flimsy is not enough to keep us on the straight and narrow to getting anything done. We state affirmations like, “I am strong enough to succeed,” but that doesn’t really motivate us to do anything.  Emotional healing coach Karena Neukirchner believes that affirmations like that “end up becoming a manifestation of toxic positivity.” We’re forcing these happy feelings to the forefront but our negative emotions are unchanged in our subconscious. And that negativity can intensify if it’s not addressed. But Neukirchner has a simple tweak to help us. Turn those affirmations into “iffirmations.” Consider “What if.” Just adding those simple words can help make your motivation more clear. When your motivation is clear, the path to happiness and resilience is more clear. 

My “iffirmation”

I had been dissatisfied with my writing. So many ideas for articles, essays, books, novellas, but I haven’t been writing. I never seemed to have the time or mindset to look at that white Google Docs screen. So, I changed “I will be a successful writer” to “What if I became successful at writing.” And I thought about how to make that happen. I like my days, full as they are, and don’t see my schedule changing any time soon. But what if I woke up a little earlier? Before my busy day started. I could write then! My new writing protocol started about a month ago and I finished my first novella (it’s being edited now!). I started the second and am reasonably happy with its progress. 

The biggest difference has been in my mindset. Since I’ve been writing more consistently, I feel like I’m more creative, and I’m happier. So, when you make your motivation more clear, things start to happen.

When part of your brain says, “Go!” and the other part, “No!”

Running is unfailingly hard for me. Every day that I step on the treadmill, it’s hard. It’s a struggle to increase that speed when all I want to do is lie down and take a nap. What do you do when part of your brain says, “Go!” and the other part says, “No?” How do you maintain your motivation to do something hard?

Why run at all?

If it’s so hard, you might ask, why do I want to run at all? I’ve mentioned my dogs lots of times here. They’re my workout and life buddies. My companions who never tell me I can’t do anything. My dogs are with me as I work, and often as I play. I train my dogs for fun and for competition. I write about the journeys I’ve had with my dogs, in life in general and on the road. The hard times and the fun times as I wrote about in Tango: Transforming My Hellhound.

I enjoy the competition training, and there’s nothing more fulfilling than running straight out on an Agility course with my dog. When he’s off-lead. I know that I’ll never be as fast as my dog – no human can match the speed of a canine – but I can be where I need to be, to give him the cues he needs to know where to go. And for that I need to run. Fast. That’s my motivation to get on the treadmill. So I run at home on my treadmill a couple of times a week. And it’s hard, every time. And yet, I still aim to increase the speed without decreasing the incline.

Why do something so hard, then?

So, why not decrease the speed or the incline, or both? In my mind, that would be cheating. Speaker, author and coach Curt Rosengren says, “The more you challenge yourself and succeed, the greater your confidence in your ability to do it again next time. Challenge doesn’t just help you grow your skills and knowledge, it helps you grow your belief that you can.” Small gains everyday help me stay on the treadmill. Another 10 seconds at a tenth of a mile faster is a win for me. Or an extra 30 seconds at a half percent higher incline is good. Small steps make the big goal more approachable. That kind of optimism will grow your resilience, and it’s good for your healthy aging.

Make hard stuff a habit

If you do things at a specific time on specific days for several weeks, they become a habit. When things become habit, you don’t even have to think about doing them, you just do. So, if you do something hard just as a matter of course, it will stop being hard. And then you’ll have to find some other hard thing to do.