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Staying motivated when you hate it

As you enter your 50s or 60s, fitness is all uphill, especially for exercise-haters.  We have a decision to make: keep doing the same thing and decline, or work harder to hold our position. Your brain agrees that you have to do something different, but your body may say, “no thanks.”  Staying motivated is the hardest part. The research on how people create good habits, stick with them and stop bad habits offers many techniques.

red old style alarm clock isolated on white

Morning research

Busy, productive people tend to maximize their mornings to get things done.  “But, I’m not a morning person, so that won’t work for me.”  I’m not either.  There is some compelling evidence that forcing yourself to get out of bed earlier, and then taking action may yield improvement.

The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life: Before 8 AM, written by Hal Elrod, generated fifteen books aimed at different kinds of people and jobs.  Simply written and often repetitive, the book describes Elrod’s transformation from his lowest point to taking complete control of his life.  Your reaction may be “this is so simple, I could’ve thought of this,” but everyone needs new ideas and inspiration.

Laura Vanderkam is a time management/productivity specialist who writes a blog and produces a daily podcast called Before Breakfast.  She wasn’t reaching her goal for strength training.  “I designated a specific time in my schedule. We’re more likely to stick with habits when we’re able to seize time that wasn’t being used well before.”  She found a window between 810 and 825 to use her kettlebell and resistance bands.  “Small things done repeatedly truly do add up.”  She tracks her time on spreadsheets and feels accomplished when she adds “weights” to the time-tracker.

Exercise equipment with notebook

Psychologist Jeremy Dean’s well-researched book, Making Habits, Breaking Habits, points out that self-monitoring came out ahead of other techniques in a meta-analysis from the University of Exeter.  The study looked at 122 research projects involving 44,000 adults using various interventions to promote healthy eating and exercise.  Professor Susan Michie found “clear support for including self-monitoring of behavior as well as prompting intention formation or goal-setting, specifying goals in relation to particular contextualized actions, providing feedback on performance and reviewing previously-set goals in interventions designed to promote healthy eating and physical activity.”

James Clear, an expert on habits, considers habit tracking essential for any improvement in your life.  In Atomic Habits, he writes, “Without reflection, we can make excuses, create rationalizations, and lie to ourselves.  We have no process for determining whether we are performing better or worse compared to yesterday.”

Budgeting your energy

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it,” Cal Newport writes in Deep Work.  We also have a defined amount of energy each day, physical and mental.  Imagine there are 100 units of energy in a day.  You need to budget where you want to spend them.  To delegate ten personal energy units to exercise, you may have to remove another activity.

Time-tracking is the way to figure out where your day went and what you accomplished. Laura Vanderkam advises people to create a weekly schedule because they don’t do the same thing each day.

Woman holding donut in hand and check out his body fat with measuring tape.

Fear won’t work for long

In Stick with It, Sean Young explains that “although fear can motivate people to do things for a little while, research shows that it’s not sustainable.” He advocates making the desired behavior “captivating.”  Each person will have to figure out what makes the activity captivating enough to keep going.  The reward cannot be a reprieve from the behavior you’re trying to change.

Woman and an exercise mat in an office background


An Iowa State study showed that exercise instigation was the most important part of developing an exercise habit.  In other words, deciding to exercise was the key action, less important than the nature of the exercise.  If you can develop a habit of instigating exercise, the habit of exercise frequency will develop, according to these researchers.

In another study, “habit strength only predicted physical activity on days when people had weak intentions.”  The habit gets you through the days when you don’t want to exercise at all.  Extra effort in forming the habit may be necessary to overcome a lack of motivation.

There seems to be no way around it: you have to make yourself exercise when you don’t want to until it becomes a habit.  How you accomplish this depends on your personality and your “currency.”

Every action you take James Clear quote

Who are you?

James Clear explains that your identity is the key to changing behavior.  “You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training,” he says.  If you want to become a writer, you must write.  If you want to stay fit, you must be someone who exercises.  How do you see yourself?  It’s not about what you’re going to do tomorrow; it’s about what you did today.

#motivation #selfassessment

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