How to Keep Motivated to Exercise

training
Exercise is not effective for weight loss but it’s great for many other things – health, strength, well-being etc. Did you want to start exercising once and for all in January this year? Have you been able to keep it up?

Keeping up your drive and enthusiasm for exercise can be tough — and there’s nothing easier than relapsing to old habits. But arm yourself with the right strategy and motivation, and anything is possible. Today our expert on exercise gives his best advice.

Jonas Bergqvist is a licensed physical therapist who’s worked with dietary, exercise and lifestyle coaching for many years. He currently runs a combined health and education centre with courses in, among other things, LCHF and paleo dietary advice. He’s also a popular diet guru and has written several diet and exercise books, including (in Swedish) “LCHF and Exercise”.

Now it’s time for his best advice for those of you who want to learn how to exercise in a way that will be sustainable in the long term.

Guest post

Jonas Bergqvist

How to beat the two-month slump in exercise motivation

This is the third and final post in my series about establishing sustainable exercise habits. Early this year, the first part was published here on DietDoctor about the best way to get started with exercise. The second part, published in March, highlighted exercise especially for people with metabolic disorders and overweight, and this third part is about how to deal with how to keep new exercise habits alive. How do you get past the plunge in motivation that normally occurs after two-three months?

The previous posts were chock-full of facts and referenced several scientific studies. This post is different. This is simply because your drive to exercise is a highly mental thing, and in order to keep exercising after doggedly pushing on for a few months only on willpower, you need the right mental approach and attitude.

During the spring I’ve received feedback on my other posts: for one thing, I’ve heard that the inspiration was right on, but I’ve also been told that the exercises I suggested were too difficult, that they didn’t work for people with chronic knee pains, back problems or obesity etc. The truth is: the more specific a message becomes, the higher the risk of excluding a larger audience. I would like to repeat that the principles outlined here are general, and that individually adapted exercise routines can only be put together after thorough screening, analysis and instruction in person.

Now, many months in, my guess would be that only a select few of the readers who let themselves be inspired to exercise at the beginning of the year still keep at those routines today. The statistics are in fact pretty bleak when it comes to establishing new routines or habits in a process of change.

The difficulty in making long-term changes last

People have a tendency to let themselves fall back into old habits after two-three months of conscious effort. This phenomenon is also typically seen in weight loss studies, where participants often stop adhering to the program two-three months in. And it’s just as noticeable in the exercise field for anyone who starts exercising. Experiencing the first few “honeymoon” months, when you feel a significant (and often steady) positive development in energy, strength, fitness, physique and body composition — this will encourage you to keep pushing on only in the beginning.

I notice this a lot in new customers I meet. For those who haven’t been very active before, and who just want some tricks to get going with exercise on their own, the outlook is grim. And it’s not a lack of knowledge that stops these people from succeeding. They may get the best tips, the best exercise plans, but in the end it’s a question of a behavioral change, a lifestyle change, and that’s more difficult than many people realize. If we look at this from a broader perspective, we might ask: why do people eat things that are bad for them, or exercise too little, or stress too much, or sleep too little, when we know all of that is unhealthy? It doesn’t matter that people are aware of these things — they may still ultimately not follow that advice. It’s obviously not an issue of a lack of knowledge.

What perks up the adherence stats (i.e. makes more people stick to a program) is if they are guided by a professional who continuously motivates, changes and coaches them to results. A professional who can draw them out of their comfort zone when necessary.

Mindset and drive

Of course you can change your lifestyle on your own. There are many examples of people who’ve managed. Many times, the key lies in asking some deeper questions related to one’s own behavior: for whom am I exercising? For what am I exercising? To overcome the inner voice that keeps you from exercising, and to be able to sustain lasting changes in habits, you have to understand your deeper drives.

If your goal is to optimize your health without exercise, that’s absolutely fine — as long as you take responsibility for the health you are foregoing in making such a decision. If you want to exercise for fun, take responsibility for the fact that the effect you are getting is derived from the passion for fun and joy within you, and not from physical or mental needs. An optimal exercise routine is often based on a mix of bits you think are fun because you’re good at them, and some bits that you don’t find as fun, but nevertheless need. It’s not like many people get a kick out of rehab exercises for example!

If you decide to use exercise to gain optimal health benefits, you have to realise that not every training session is going to be fun. Every training session doesn’t need to be fun. Work on your attitude and come to terms with the fact that you sometimes have to accept to just perform a training session, knowing that it will take you towards a greater goal. Some days, you won’t feel like working out. In that situation, a person who’s driven by pleasure will do something completely different than put on his or her running shoes and go work out — but in order to optimise your health, you should perform this workout too. These are the days that make a difference. I mentioned this already in the first part, and recommended setting a performance goal 2-6 months ahead. Experience has taught me that this increases the tendency to go through with workouts even on bad days. A performance goal will give you direction, as well as proof of your progress.

Continue to improve the environment around you

Lifestyle changes are tough. Establishing exercise habits after one, two or more years of sedentary life isn’t easy, and you have to continuously reflect on what you’re doing. Besides your mindset and attitude, you need to make sure that external factors won’t hold you back or create problems for you after a few months of regular exercise. Will you still have functioning equipment then? Are your training clothes still alright, or would a new set of clothes increase your motivation levels? Make sure you still pack your workout bag the night before, that you still take out your running shoes and put them where you can see them in the morning. Prepare in every way you can for tomorrow’s workout. Keep remembering to schedule your workouts. Personally, I’ve scheduled my workouts in my work calendar. I tell the people I’m around that I’m in a meeting if someone wants to get my attention during my own training sessions. It’s still not entirely socially acceptable to turn down people in favor of one’s own workouts, but do try to develop a higher understanding at your workplace.

Understand what your body needs

There are several physiological phenomena that appear after two months of regular exercise which are worth thinking about if you want to boost your willpower and the motivation to stick to your exercise plan. In many people, the results from exercise tend to reach a plateau after a couple of months, which can be explained physiologically.

During the first 6-8 weeks of regular exercise, increased strength is largely attributable to improved communication between muscles and nerves (1). Your body simply becomes stronger because it gets better at using what it already has. Only a minor part of the improvement stems from any actual increase in muscle mass, and this increase will primarily be more water retention anyway. You won’t get all much more muscle protein from 6-8 weeks of regular exercise on an amateur level.

After 6-8 weeks, a larger part of your increase in strength will be derived from an actual increase in muscle mass — but achieving this demands a more powerful anabolic signal during your workouts compared to what you needed during the first weeks (the “honeymoon” period).

What do you need to do? Well, varying your workouts is always a plus, and you’ll also need to keep increasing the load to keep developing your body. This becomes more crucial after the first 6-8 weeks.

The value of a personal trainer (P.T.)

Throw yourself out of your comfort zone! Book an appointment with a personal trainer at this stage, in order to get an update on your exercise routine as well as an extra motivational kick! It’s also sensible to accept that the development curve you’ve been seeing for the past 6-8 weeks of regular exercise is tough to keep up. After all, the more fit you get, the more it takes to get even fitter.

PT

Another important aspect to consider is: the more strain you put on your body as you push for better fitness and physique, the more your risk of injury will increase. This is why I encourage you to start thinking in terms of a corrective strength routine and a corrective exercise program.

Let me illustrate this with an example: I used to coach a professional golf player for whom I devised a so-called corrective technical exercise plan. It included stretching and stability exercises and had the purpose of keeping her injury-free while performing strength workouts.

The corrective technical exercise plan included flexibility exercises for the joints she needed more flexibility in, and stability exercises for areas where she needed improved muscular balance. The program was meant to allow the golfer to safely perform her more advanced training routine. In this case, she was doing some pretty advanced and heavy weightlifting — which in its turn was meant to keep her injury-free while practising golf for 6 hours a day.

Be inspired by this philosophy – use an exercise plan that gives you the flexibility and stability you need to perform the strength and cardio exercises you do, in order to keep injury-free in your everyday life, and to feel good. As a beginner, you can have the same tactic as a professional golf player — even if the content, level of ambition and discipline differ.

It’s not easy to design your own corrective technical routine, so solicit the help of any well-regarded PT. Some of the exercises can probably be integrated into your normal workouts, but if you have aches and pains or long-term injuries, you’ll most likely need to let yourself focus on your technical routine. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for amateurs to injure themselves exercising, and it’s often a result of over-exertion, muscular imbalances, bad flexibility and poor technique. A corrective technical routine will allow you to stay healthy and fit.

In conclusion

If you really want to achieve long-term change, you’re going to have to deal with deep personal things such as your sense of identity and your set of values. This is where you’ll find the key to long-term, sustainable change. If you’re instinctively thinking of excuses as to why the tips I’ve given in this series of posts don’t apply to you, or how they can’t possibly help you, then maybe it’s time to say goodbye to all those excuses and instead focus your energy in another direction. Start to see possibilities instead of problems.

These final lines feel like an invitation to a new series of articles on personal development. Although that’s not my area of expertise, and nothing I am qualified to write about, it’s so important that I’ll still choose to end on this note.

I hope you’ve found an extra motivational nugget when it comes to exercise, some instructive advice or perhaps an interesting new thought. If just one of you have gotten something valuable from my guest posts, then they’ve been worth writing.

Good luck!

Jonas Bergqvist
jonas@mfgruppen.se

Sources

(1) Häkkinen K, Komi PV. Electromyographic changes during strength training and detraining. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1983;15(6):455-60

Comment

Thanks for the third and final part, Jonas!

The MF Group where Jonas works has many things to offer: educational courses, rehab, personal trainer services, health and exercise-related books and fitness tests. However, their website is currently available only in Swedish. If you’re interested in just taking a look, here’s their site translated by Google:

mf-group-400x244

Previous posts

Kickstart this Year’s Exercise — Properly

The Best Way to Exercise for Beginners

How to Tailor Your Fitness Routine if You’re Overweight or Suffer from Metabolic Syndrome

More

17 Comments

  1. david
    motivation is at al very important for success in any field. keep exercising is need to be imbibed in routine. I was easily carried away by boredom and lost but to get something you need to be devoted to it.
  2. FrankG
    I'm still not a fan of the whole organised "exercise" approach (makes a great deal of money for some) but I do appreciate the many benefits of building physical activity into my day to day.

    For me a great motivator has been taking up photography [again]... specifically of wildlife. This gets me out walking/hiking at least once a day... often more.

    Of course the extra energy freed up by an LCHF approach also makes it more natural to take the stairs, or park at the far end of the car-park, get off the bus a stop earlier or walk rather than drive whenever possible.

  3. Murray
    Cancel the gym membership and get a dog to run every morning.

    No matter what the weather is, we go on a jaunt through the woods every morning (my daily forest bath), skipping from rock to rock over the creek and hurdling over fallen tree trunks. We even do play attacks, where my dog lunges at me and I fend him off with fascia-powered parries. He is a 100-pound Rottweiler, so I need quick wits and ability to exploit my fascia elasticity to generate sufficient quick leverage to divert his momentum when he lunges at me, as he keeps learning new dekes and feints. I never get bored when I'm wearing just my trail shoes, running shorts and a light T-shirt with a Rottweiler lunging at me trying to grab my forearm. It keeps me really fit.

  4. Good post. I fully agree that in order to create new habits that stick for more than a couple of months the reason for the change has to answer what kind of person you want to be/become instead of what goal you want to achieve.
  5. Christopher
    As a Clinical Exercise Physiologist who follows LCHF I fully agree with the statement that exercise is good for your health. Where I find issue is when you state that "exercise is not effective for weight loss". Exercise is very effective for weight loss, when combined with a proper diet such as a LCHF diet. Leading people who want to lose weight to believe that exercise is not going to help is in my opinion a bad tactic. Letting them know that with diet and exercise, and motivation, they are then in the best strategy for weight loss is the best approach.

    I may be a little bias after devoting my life to exercise but we all know that exercise helps with weight loss. Diet, exercise, motivation, support, and a positive attitude are all pieces of the weight loss puzzle. They all need to be in place to see the whole picture.

    Replies: #6, #7
  6. FrankG
    Exercise by itself is NOT effective for losing excess fat mass [but it is helpful for improving overall health in other ways]

    LCHF by itself IS effective for losing excess fat mass [and is also helpful for improving overall health]

    Exercise + LCHF is effective for losing excess fat mass DOES NOT EQUAL "Exercise is very effective for weight loss..."

    Reply: #9
  7. murray
    n=1: My experience differs. I tried for years to lose weight (body fat) by exercising and following lower fat, lower calorie approaches. I converted to a diet closer to LCHF and had some modest success. When I had my major breakthrough, however, was when I had a shoulder injury that kept me from doing much for six weeks. Worried about weight gain I went more strongly LCHF. I lost more weight (body fat) during those six weeks than all the years previously, when I had been working out hard 5 times or more per week with multi-hour sessions on weekends. The other time I lost a lot of body fat was on a two-week trip touring Italy, which involved zero workouts, lots of cheese and lots of walking. I came back at my lowest weight since I was 16 years old (almost 35 years earlier). I still exercise a lot. But for general health and not to manage weight.

    n=i: Speaking to a few physicians who treat obese patients, they report more clinical success telling patients not to exercise and to take up exercise only to the extent they feel energetic. With initial progress converting to burning fat for energy, such patients become more energetic and, as a result, feel compelled to walk around more and then ramp up activity.

    It is important in examining data to view the matter from different perspectives that reverse cause and effect. There may be correlation between fat loss and increasing exercise, but clinically and metabolically it looks more like fat loss (and thus activating pathways to use stored fat for energy) causes increased impetus toward physical activity and not vice versa.

  8. Scribe
    Sorry, if a workout is uncomfortable and not fun, I'm NOT doing it. You can go on all you want about how important it is to push yourself, but it's hard enough to motivate myself to exercise in the first place. If I'm hating it, I'm going to think of a million reasons avoid it next time and that leads to the couch.

    I'm willing to work very hard and even endure some discomfort for something I enjoy, but if I'm not enjoying it, forget that!

    Some people are willing to push through when it's not fun. Those are your clients. But all those people who drop out from working with you--THIS is why. They need to exercise as much or more than the people you work with regularly, but you are never going to see them again. You've just given them one more reason to hate exercise.

    The outlook does not have to be "grim" as you put it. A trainer who respects where people are (instead of where you think they "should" be), who is willing to start more slowly, listen carefully, and be creative can help that client find the joy in the exercise and nurture that motivation to push harder. There are some gifted trainers out there who do a great job fostering success in the type of people you've given up on.

    Unfortunately, some of us don't find these trainers. We either have to find our own way or we give in to the couch.

    I've been fortunate to find a variety of workouts that I can enjoy independently and which can be sufficiently challenging as I'm ready for in the moment. I find having a variety of pleasurable workout options that offer different levels of physical challenge, shorter or longer time requirements depending on my schedule, and simple or no equipment keep me motivated and pushing myself. I may not feel like doing A today, but I'm willing to do B or C instead.

    I know you are trying to be very general, but there is a vast group of people who desperately need exercise options that nurture and grow their sense of motivation. If you conclude they are not worth your time because they "lack mindset and drive" you are missing out on the opportunity of helping them grow in a positive way. Mindset and drive develop over time.

  9. Christopher
    So you want to tell me that exercising, walking, running, riding your bike, lifting weights, ect., is not effective in losing excess fat mass? Ridiculous! For those who eat the calories they have burned off then yes they will not lose weight. Hence, why I stated that it is a puzzle and you must have all the pieces such as diet and exercise.

    People who sit around and eat the right diet are going to lose weight,to a point. People who are more active, exercising for example, and eat the right diet are going to lose more weight. The human body is designed to move and be hunters. We are not designed to eat all the food we want, even LCHF, and sit around watching TV.

    I wanted to make the point that yes, the diet will help you lose weight but coupling it with exercise is the smarter answer. Even for weight loss, not just health.

    Reply: #10
  10. FrankG
    "So you want to tell me that exercising, walking, running, riding your bike, lifting weights, ect., is not effective in losing excess fat mass? Ridiculous!"

    Before commenting further, maybe you need to spend some time reading around this site. Dr Andreas has links to multiple studies showing exactly that... exercise is highly INEFFECTIVE at shifting excess fat mass.

    Reply: #14
  11. LarryB
    I think there's something to be said for finding a small, focused gym where workouts take a class format. Trying several different ones can be helpful.

    I found boxing this way. I go to a very small gym, with a strong and supportive community and excellent coaching. When you build friendships and find something you love to do, it's easier to stay motivated. Our classes typically have 10 minutes of jump rope, 30 - 40 minutes of boxing drills, followed by a 10 - 20 minute intense workout (kettlebells, sprinting, body weight exercises).

    In the past, even with a personal trainer, I've never been able to make exercise stick. The class format, and finding something I love to do has kept me in the gym 3 - 4 times a week for the past 2 1/2 years.

  12. reney
    I'm in agreement, exercise does not help in the weight loss process. I run between 2-5 miles five times a week and I have never lost a pound.
  13. Chris the Barbarian
    Quite Amazing how much negativity exists in the comment section on almost every Article on dietdoctor. If you don't want to work out, then don't - but please don't try to convince others that it is good, or has no benefit.

    Thanks for the nice Article, I welcome such information and Motivation. That's what I like about this site :)

    Reply: #16
  14. Christopher
    OK FrankG you sit on your butt all day and I will continue to run and lift weights. Then we can recap who has lost more fat mass in the coming months.

    Oh also, "If, on the other hand, you’ve already taken care of steps 1-12, you should have a rested and recharged body which is already happily burning fat. In this case, increased activity will accelerate your weight loss, and act as an nice bonus. You’ll be burning even more fat from the very first step"

    Reply: #17
  15. starlene
    We just started the diet. My husband is 15 pounds overweight . We are very excited but in three days he has not lost a pound . How much should we lose a week. Thanks
  16. Murray
    No one here suggests exercise does not have significant benefits for health. However, one must have an open mind that is responsive to empirical data, and this includes room for debate about the relationship between exercise and reduction of body fat. When a lifelong endurance athlete such as Tim Noakes, who has been a leading scientist in exercise physiology, publishes that studies show that exercise is not effective for fat loss and this coincides with his personal experience, and when several leading obesity specialists have observed the same in a clinical setting, there is plainly room for inquiry and discussion of the empirical data and its scientific interpretation, as well as consideration of ideologies that would ban such discussions, especially in a forum that discusses strategies and barriers to reducing excess body fat.

    Personally, I have nothing against exercise and fitness. I have trained regularly with a heart rate monitor since the 1980s. I have had a stand-up desk at work for over eight years, before anyone had heard of them. (It was difficult to source back then.) This morning I ran our dog through the woods, dancing rock to rock, hurdling fallen logs, vaulting fences, checking bear scat on the trail for freshness. I skip every day to develop fascia elasticity. Later today I will do a lake swim 1.6 km in chilly water around an island, checking for swimming bears (a local hazard).

    But zeal for exercise ought not to become an ideology. I have no financial interest in exercise as a fitness trainer. Exercise has not been an emotional crutch for me that I need to rationalize. Indeed, I have seen several colleagues and clients (most in their fifties) suffer conditions such as heart arrhythmia from a lifetime of excess endurance exercise in the carb-burning zone, with one colleague (who used to ride in the amateur Tour de France) going in soon for a second five-hour heart ablation surgery. Another died from ventricular arrhythmia while swimming laps at her fitness club. Chasing empirical data and science, I spoke at length to a nanotech biomedical researcher into heart arrhythmia and found that endurance athletes are the main source of subjects in this research area. His view was that mitochondrial damage in heart muscle cells drives heart arrhythmia (Too many carbs, Corduroy!). There is an ongoing local study into heart arrhythmia and the friend of a colleague who is an avid older endurance athlete is being hounded to let them study him because he does not have heart damage and they want to study him to try to understand why he does not have damage. Get that? They are having trouble finding undamaged older endurance athletes.

    So as beneficial as exercise is, one should not ideologically leap to the general antecedent proposition to force assent to the view that exercise is beneficial and syllogistically reason that any qualification, or inquiry or discussion into any qualification, is therefore in error. Sir Francis Bacon pointed this out in establishing principles of empirical science in Novum Organum in 1620:

    X. The subtilty of nature is far beyond that of sense or of the understanding: so that the specious meditations, speculations, and theories of mankind are but a kind of insanity, only there is no one to stand by and observe it.
    ...
    XII. The present system of logic rather assists in confirming and rendering inveterate the errors founded on vulgar notions than in searching after truth, and is therefore more hurtful than useful.

    XIII. The syllogism is not applied to the principles of the sciences, and is of no avail in intermediate axioms, as being very unequal to the subtilty of nature. It forces assent, therefore, and not things.
    ...
    XIX. There are and can exist but two ways of investigating and discovering truth. The one hurries on rapidly from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from them, as principles and their supposed indisputable truth, derives and discovers the intermediate axioms. This is the way now in use. The other constructs its axioms from the senses and particulars, by ascending continually and gradually, till it finally arrives at the most general axioms, which is the true but unattempted way.
    ...
    XXIV. Axioms determined upon in argument can never assist in the discovery of new effects; for the subtilty of nature is vastly superior to that of argument. But axioms properly and regularly abstracted from particulars easily point out and define new particulars, and therefore impart activity to the sciences.
    ...
    XXVIII. Anticipations again, will be assented to much more readily than interpretations, because being deduced from a few instances, and these principally of familiar occurrence, they immediately hit the understanding and satisfy the imagination; while, on the contrary, interpretations, being deduced from various subjects, and these widely dispersed, cannot suddenly strike the understanding, so that in common estimation they must appear difficult and discordant, and almost like the mysteries of faith.

    XXIX. In sciences founded on opinions and dogmas, it is right to make use of anticipations and logic if you wish to force assent rather than things.

  17. Paul TR
    Christopher, FrankG posts do not negate the benefits of exercise. You indicated that you are a clinitian, well my experience is that for a person below the age of 45 (on average) loosing weight with increased physical activity and reduction in calories is - let's call it - easy. When a person is over 45, however, the story gets more complicated. We have currently a patient (late 50-ties) who is almost vegetarian, runs 10 km 6 times a week plus resistance exercises and he is steadily putting on weight!!. His fasting blood glucose is well within normal range, however his fasting insulin is around 30. He is not overweight, slight mid-body fat (BMI 23). My experience tells me that he is on his way to become pre and than diabetic despite all his exercises and "healthy" very low fat diet.

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