Staying motivated

You get up in the morning all ready to head to the gym and CRAP! it’s raining or snowing or windy or another one of those damn pestilences of locusts outside. Arrgghh… gym… so… far… away… well, back to bed! What is the secret to leaping energetically out of the house and into the gym? If you find anything foolproof do let me know.

Usually the secret to us doing something is that we want to get it done. So we’re “too busy” to scrub out the toilets or balance our chequebooks but never too busy to read the comics. It’s a question of where we choose to direct our efforts.

But here’s something else. We often assume that intent precedes action, and sometimes it does. In other words, we imagine that we’ll be sitting there thinking, Wow! I feel super-energized! Time to get me to the gym! Well, it doesn’t work like that. With many tasks, feeling follows action.

Think, for example, of when you exercised even when you weren’t all that into it. Maybe it was cold outside but you went for a walk anyway. You get out for that walk, grumbling to yourself a bit. Five minutes later you’re feeling pretty good. Ten minutes later you’re feeling awesome. Fifteen minutes later you feel like busting out into a run. Twenty minutes later you get back home and feel fantastic. When it comes to exercise, the action comes first, then the feeling.

The same incorrect assumption exists about art and writing. We imagine that genuises sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. Then they run to the keyboard or canvas and start pounding something brilliant out. In reality, good work only comes from hours and hours and hours of tedious, rather uninteresting work. Incredible novels and paintings aren’t just explosively crapped out like last night’s burrito. They came from sucky first drafts and revision and spending an hour reformatting the Word style sheet, and above all a commitment to doing the same thing over and over until it’s right.

Personally, I don’t believe much in motivation. I believe in structure and routine. If your life is structured and organized so that physical activity is just part of your daily existence, then you’ll do it.

Here are some tips to help you get that corpse of yours into the gym. None of these are lazy-proof, since it only works if YOU want to do it anyway. But hey, they can’t hurt.

make working out a priority

First off, you have to decide that working out is an important part of your daily and weekly routine. Often it’s not that people don’t have time for working out, they just put other things ahead of it. Decide in advance how much time you have available. Don’t overestimate it—be realistic. Can you find 4-6 hours a week? I think you can dig those out of somewhere. Establish these hours as your own and assign them top priority.

keep a workout journal

Keeping a journal of your workouts not only contributes to a streamlined and organized workout, but it also helps you organize your time and keep thinking ahead about your next workout. Planning workouts in advance gives them kind of an official stamp like an appointment you have to keep. Once you have an idea of what you’ll be doing for each workout, you can get in and get out with maximum efficiency.

make it fun

Activity should be fun. The body loves to move. Try a bunch of activities and see which ones you like. If you don’t like one, try another one. There are a zillion choices, from archery to… uhhh… zamboni chasing. Who knows, you could uncover a secret talent for windsurfing, belly dancing, or unicycling. Make a point of enjoying your exercise time. Work out in a pleasant space either by yourself if alone time is important to you, or with a friend if you prefer. Laugh between weight sets. Put on music that gets you going. Get outside if you can. Enjoy yourself!

surround yourself with motivational things

Find a muscle or fitness mag that you like, from Girljock to Flex and read it. Put up a really unflattering photo of yourself struggling to open a jar while wearing a giant muumuu. Buy nifty new workout clothes that you enjoy wearing and leave them lying around. Paint “NIKE” across your fridge next to the articles you snipped out from the newspaper about fitness helping you live longer. Whatever! Keep motivational things around to remind yourself of why you took this weird hobby up. Often all we need is a small external cue to give us that little push.

have someone else motivate you

Like many things in life, working out is sometimes best done with someone else. If you have a workout partner you can motivate each other, or you can motivate yourself through sheer shame of public failure, heh heh. Deciding not to go to the gym when no-one knows or cares is like that tree falling in the forest… Also, get involved in a Usenet newsgroup such as or or another online forum. Talking to other like-minded people helps keep you interested in the subject and you can learn plenty of new things. Get to know the person at the gym’s front desk. Think about how they’ll miss you if you don’t show up (or how they’ll be really happy they took all your money and didn’t have to do anything for you).

keep a routine

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were for doing housecleaning chores. I dreaded those Saturday mornings and even now the idea gives me the willies but at least the house got clean. Now that I don’t bother to assign a day to it, the house gets cleaned less often, which is fine because I don’t care. But the lesson here is that even unpleasant things get done if we assign them a place in our routine. Doing the laundry, taking out the garbage, doing our tax return, etc., all have a place in the routine cycles of our lives. Why shouldn’t working out have the same status, especially because it’s NOT unpleasant? Organize your day and week so that you know Wednesday at 7 p.m. you should be ripping apart the gym, and even what specific pieces of equipment you should be leaving smoking in your wake.

mess with your head

In this endeavour we call all learn from Homer Simpson, a man who doesn’t let his brain push him around. I like to tell my brain one thing then do another. For instance, I get bored easily when doing cardio. So I tell my brain that we are only going to walk for 30 minutes. What I don’t tell it is that I’m going to walk in one direction for 30 minutes, and then somehow I have to get home. Ms. Brain goes along happily with the idea of a 30-minute walk and never really minds when she discovers she has to do 30 more. Tell your brain you’re just going to the store so it lets you get out of the house. Then take the long way there with your legs in charge of the action. Get off the bus two stops ahead so you have a 15-minute walk home.

Your brain being, well, smart, likes to think in terms of numbers and time and quantities. If you tell it that you expect to do only 6 reps with a certain weight, it’ll cash out after 6 right on schedule. So don’t approach your lifting with a number in mind. Just get in there, and when your brain says, “Well, that’s six; time to stop!”, you tell it that when you said six you meant eight. “Oh, my mistake!” your brain will say, and out come two more reps. Then tell your brain, “Look, I just bet some biker guy a hundred bucks that I could do TEN reps on this! Do you want to get publicly mocked??” “Fine,” says your brain, “Ten reps it is.” There are a lot of mind games you can play with yourself to get that stick-in-the-mud brain out of the driver’s seat. When I am about to approach a particularly scary squat, I simply tell myself calmly that I have a choice: either get the reps I want or fail at the bottom and leave it on the safety rails. 99% of the time, I get the reps I want, because I’ve given myself a safe option for failure if I need it, as well as a clear course of action: either do the reps or leave it on the bars.

keep yourself free of injury

Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like a nagging injury. It can take down even the most diehard athlete and send them into a depressive slump. Be careful with the activities you choose, and learn how to do them intelligently and proficiently. Increase your workload gradually. Increase either intensity or duration, not both together. If you feel bad pain while training, stop immediately. Don’t ever push through an injury thinking it will get better. Most of the time, it won’t. Keep yourself whole and you’ll keep yourself motivated.

consider the alternative

In response to the question: How do you stay motivated? Charlie Moody wrote on the newsgroup

I look in the mirror: if I see any trace of the sad, exhausted, pale, weak, fat, whipped wage-slave desk-jockey I used to be, I’m ready to lift some weight. I’m reminded of my sister (nothing personal), who’s spent her life doing all the stuff other people want her to do, and all the stuff she figures she should do. A couple of weeks ago, she asked me with tears in her eyes when would it be her turn to have a life and do what she wants? All I could tell her was, “It’ll be your turn when you get off the hamster wheel and take a fucking turn.” It’s up to you. No one else. You’ll find the time to work out when you DECIDE you’re gonna work out. You’ll eat and rest and take care of yourself because you decide you deserve it, you need it, you want it, and NO ONE is going to keep you from it. Not even you. I’m a beginner, too, and no-one’s gonna watch what I eat for me, no-one’s gonna lift an ounce of my weight. I can make up any story I want about it, but stories are bullshit: I can be a warrior, or I can be a victim. For the warrior, no excuses; for the victim, only excuses.

In my case, my family history is a ticking time bomb. Between the osteoporosis, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypothyroidism, joint troubles, back pain, and stress/cognitive/anxiety disorders, I have a full slate of potential genetically linked disasters.

On the plus side, all of these things respond to and can be controlled or even prevented by exercise and good nutrition. Watching family members succumb to these things is difficult, especially since many of these conditions did not have to occur, or could have been reduced in their severity. To be perfectly frank, I am going to be in seriously deep shit if I don’t take care of myself. I don’t have the kind of genetics that allow me to smoke a pack of unfiltered Gauloises a day, chase it with a rasher of bacon, and live to 120. The writing’s on the wall: unless I want a premature and probably unpleasant demise, I’d better get off my butt and keep moving.

Now in my thirties I find myself considering my own mortality more and more. I watch people around me get consumed in their careers to the detriment of their relationships and own wellbeing. I see them park themselves at their desks for twelve hours a day, popping anti-inflammatories to control the RSI and the backaches. I watch them drink, smoke, and live on takeout food. And I watch them start to crumble, piece by piece.

I’ve decided that I’m not going to die until I’m damn good and ready. I’ve also decided that every year of life that I am generously granted is going to be spent pursuing optimal health: physical, mental, and emotional. No job, no lifestyle is worth the damage that inactivity and poor eating causes. Am I drinking seaweed juice and living in an oxygen chamber? Hell no. A good quality of life includes pleasures like tasty food and getting out of the house, getting dirty, getting a few scrapes. But it also means constant maintenance in the form of self-care. This is a small rent to pay for getting to live in such a cool apartment!

The alternative to exercise is sedentary living and inactivity. The alternative to eating well is cheating the body of what it needs. The alternative to a healthy lifestyle is self-destruction. The alternative to feeling fit and energetic is feeling like a bag of reheated dog poop. The alternative to growth is stagnation. Which one sounds better to you?

By the way, don’t you have a 3 pm appointment with a chunk of iron?