My naturally in-shape ex-wife, Lisa, is allergic to working out. “Running gives me a headache,” she used to tell me. What about the endorphin release, Lisa? “That doesn’t work for me.” Ha. Love it. She’s gifted.
We are different beings, and we respond very differently to training.
Stephanie, our know-it-all editor and my partner at Kaplifestyle, illuminates some of her personal challenges below. I love when Steph chooses to write. She always brings it. She has a strong mind. Enjoy.
Staying motivated to continue on with a fitness regimen often means tricking our brains.
There are a handful of people who genuinely enjoy the process of working out. Unfortunately, these are also often the loudest voices, preaching about the “runner’s high” or endorphin rush after a heavy lifting session. When we don’t experience the exhilaration, merely the sore muscles and panting for breath, we often tell ourselves “oh, I’m just not the exercise type,” and give up.
I don’t know that I enjoy the actual training part of working out. Certainly, when I’m forcing out that last lap in the pool or shaking with the effort of getting the bar up one more time, there are a lot of things I’d rather be doing, like relaxing on the beach, surrounded by nothing but the sound of the waves. Instead, I do it for the results and benefits I see.
For most of us, it’s a question of external motivation. We want to look better for swimsuit season, change our body composition or stave off the effects of aging. For the pro athletes reading this, there’s an easy answer of getting better at their particular sport. But the vast majority of us have external goals driving our workouts. Unfortunately, this means we end up seeing a workout as the obstacle we must conquer in order to reach our goal.
Because we’re not engaged in the exercise as an end in and of itself, it can be very easy to lose our motivation. This is particularly true because the results we see are often a product of our mental and emotional states. If I have a rough day and I’m feeling beat down, I don’t look at myself in the mirror and notice all the changes; I look at myself and see how far I need to go to get to where I want.
Often, many of the adaptations our body is undergoing are internal. We can’t spot the hormone regulation happening, the increase in our responsiveness to insulin, the increase in our VO2 max. We step on the scale and see no change. “I worked hard all week, and I have nothing to show for it!” Getting out to the gym the next day becomes an insurmountable mountain. We’ve all evolved to avoid discomfort and negative experiences.
Instead of feeling guilt and shame for these thought processes, I’m learning to work within them. I track all kinds of things – the more data points I’m keeping an eye on, the more likely it is that one of them has changed. Weight lifting makes it easier than, say, cardio. I know that something is improving when I’m able to add five more pounds onto the bar. If I’m just tracking what the scale says, I’m discouraged when, because of retained water, the numbers tick up. But by measuring on a scale various parts of my body, I can notice the body recomposition that’s happening.
Many people have had success losing weight on programs like Weight Watchers. I’m not particularly a fan; the “points” system is strictly caloric restriction and does nothing to improve your overall health and well-being by improving your diet. Additionally, the focus is nearly entirely on simply shedding pounds, not actually improving body composition. But it undeniably works for many, many people. Part of the reason may be the meetings. They track your weight and your progress and seeing progress is motivating. More importantly, however, they provide a forum for this progress to be shared. Celebrating successes is a critical part of continuing motivation.
At its heart, both of these concepts comes down to the same basic principle – we’re associating exercise with pleasurable feelings, even if we don’t have them inherently. The pleasure we feel from seeing a result, any result, and the feeling of affirmation and belonging when we celebrate that result with another conditions our brain to seek more of those rewards.
This same principle can, of course, undermine our efforts. If our celebrations turn into an excuse to have a box of oatmeal crème pies after every workout, we’re not likely to achieve our goals. We may be tricking our brains, but that’s not an excuse to not be sensible.
Motivation is a difficult concept. When fitness is hard, self-defeating rhetoric is always readily available. “I can’t do this. I’m just not meant to be fit and healthy.” We personalize it, thinking that it means we’re lazy or otherwise a bad person. We see it as an immutable characteristic of who we are, and we stop trying. Instead of passively accepting our situation, we can take the neutral fact of having external reasons for working out and use that to motivate ourselves.