No motivation to train

Workout Motivation: Why we lose it and how to get it back

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Anna W

Anna Wishnowsky

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In today’s times it’s easy to lose sight of things that were once very important to us. Such as staying fit or working out. As we get older, we get busier, our priorities change and our motivation slowly disappears. Well, it’s time to put our foot down and get it back – one inch at a time.

The motivation happens after the fact. 

Motivation is a result of a positive behavior and not the driver behind it. For motivation to strike, we need to start by forming habits. These habits are: Know Why you are doing it, Note the struggles, Set well-defined goals, Plan the journey and milestones, and Manage your energy.

To better understand each of these steps and how we can apply them in our daily lives, we have explained in more detail in the article below. But first, let’s start with the enigma – why do we lose motivation so easily?

Why we are losing motivation to train and exercise

Struggling to find motivation to train is a universal experience. As a trainer, I get asked iterations of the same question on a weekly basis – how do I motivate myself to train, eat better or behave more healthily? It seems we are perennially frustrated by our own inability to act how we know we should. 

We cite several reasons to half-heartedly justify ‘bad’ behavior: busy jobs, childcare, extracurriculars, commuting, inconvenience or lack of energy. During the pandemic, the list has grown, adding to the mix a global rise in stress, lack of access to gyms and lockdown-fueled cabin fever. 

We believe that we could make it happen, if we simply tried harder

The sentiment of struggle is justified. These are substantial and concrete roadblocks to health-promoting behaviors. While many of us want to change our behavior, we’re apathetic. 

We say things like, “I really should…”, “I want…”, or “I would love to…” followed by a vague goal or desire.

We wait for motivation to strike, hoping for a lightbulb moment where suddenly we want to do all the things we should do. 

There’s an implicit assumption that motivation is like the weather, and we just need a sunny day to come along so we can tick off our laundry list of wants. But the problem is that for every sunny day there are far more rainy ones.

Overcome lack of motivation - Get a boost by forming habits

We need to form the habits that spark motivation – no matter the weather. Waiting for the sun to shine is a poor strategy if we’re serious about achieving our goals. To actually change our health behaviors, the conversation must shift from blame culture to a focus on habit formation

We’ve been thinking about it backwards – in the early stages of lifestyle changes, motivation is the result of positive behavior, not the driver behind it.[1] By building rewarding habits, we create a virtuous cycle, resulting in more days of sunshine.

Apply consistency to your habits and workouts, not motivation

Habit formation requires some groundwork. There are a few core tenets to ensuring success. We want to reduce friction – stuff that gets between us and executing our plans so that we can adhere to our goals as smoothly as possible.[2] Read more about A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface.

For the rubber to hit the road, we need to know why we’re working toward that goal, build a series of steps to achieve it, and plan repeatable small actions to get there.

Old jogging shoes
Source: Gia Oris @ Unsplash

Let’s use the example of a parent working full time with a history of running half marathons, who has fallen out of the habit and wants to get back into running shape.

Start by knowing Why

The best goals come from a place of understanding about how we view ourselves, so that we can align our goals with our identity or an identity we wish to curate.[3] 

Using our runner example, they might say, “I want to get fit”. That’s fine, but it’s far less powerful than:

  • “I am a runner who values my fitness.” 
  • “I want to have energy to provide for my family and play with my kids.”
  • “I feel confident when I’m fit.” 

Being specific develops an image of the path to achieving our future goals. This is the same image that we look at on rainy days for inspiration, over and over again.

Note the struggles of the present

Often, we carry on with unhealthy lifestyles because the negative consequences of the status quo seem smaller than the hurdles of change. Only when the downsides of the former outweigh those of the latter are we motivated to act.

For example, our runner might recognize that their current state involves getting breathless when walking up the stairs and not keeping up with their kids on the playground. They would like to run around with their kids and feel energetic. They’d have to decide that getting breathless is more painful than getting fit in order to be motivated to change.

Set a well-crafted goal

Loose statements like, “I want to run more” are meaningless. How much is more? What beliefs do they have about themselves as a runner? How do they picture this fitting into their lifestyle? There is too much ambiguity. 

We need to get nitty-gritty about what a goal looks like. A better goal for our runner might be, “I want to be able to run five kilometers at a relaxed six-minute pace by December so I can join my family’s annual morning jog on Christmas.” Now we’re getting somewhere. With the context and specifics laid out, the goal writes itself.

Storyboard the journey to achieving the goal

We wouldn’t expect to achieve our goals overnight so it makes sense to set some checkpoints along the way. If we’re aiming to run a 5k in December, and it’s currently September, we’d develop a plan for when we’d be able to run 1k, 2k, and 5k. 

Within that structure, we can build steps toward meeting each checkpoint easily.

Finally, manage your energy, not your time

Execution of a goal requires daily input. Improve your likelihood of delivering on your inputs by reducing the energy required to start.[4] Repeating a behavior forms habits, and forming habits leads to long-term, goal-oriented results.[4] Putting cues in place can remind us and direct our daily behaviors toward an end-goal.[2] Read more on Psychology of Habit.

For our runner example, they could prepare by putting their running shoes by the door and laying out their running gear the night before the run. Mentally committing to the preparation (putting on the clothes), rather than the execution (going for the run), reduces friction.

Execution of a goal requires daily input

Still, the above series of steps requires more than just commitment. It requires a stronger focus on forming positive habits so that we feel motivated every day of the week. It requires planning, effort and introspection. And frankly, all of that is a lot less convenient than waiting for motivation to strike.

Source: Amber Avalona @ Pixabay

Let’s make a plan that will work and we can follow every day.

But it’s also a lot less punishing than the “grit your teeth and get it done” mentality that the fitness industry prescribes. Let’s stop waiting for the weather and start building behaviours that last.

However, sometimes all of this is easier said than done, which is why practice makes perfect. To read more about similar topics and have good guidance around them, I would suggest that you join our healthy community and Subscribe to our Newsletter. That way, you will always be informed when a new article, regarding the topics that you are interested in, will be published.

Anna Wishnowsky is a Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist. Her focus is on improving movement quality for everyday athletes, weekend warriors and recreational strength trainees. Anna believes everyone should move well, move often and eat correctly in order to support how they choose to move. Anna coaches in Auckland and provides online consultations worldwide. 

You can find Anna at annawish.net 

References

(1) Neal DT, Wood W, Drolet A. How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Jun;104(6):959-75. doi: 10.1037/a0032626. PMID: 23730907.

(2) Wood W, Neal DT. A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychol Rev. 2007 Oct;114(4):843-63. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.843. PMID: 17907866. http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/a_new_look_at_habits_and_the_habitgoal_interface.pdf

(3) Oyserman, Daphna. Pathways to success through identity-based motivation. Oxford University Press, USA, 2015. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283713289_Pathways_to_Success_Through_Identity-Based_Motivation

(4) Wood W, Rünger D. Psychology of Habit. Annu Rev Psychol. 2016;67:289-314. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033417. Epub 2015 Sep 10. PMID: 26361052. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281679387_Psychology_of_Habit

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