Why are some people more likely than others to go to the gym after work, rise early to fit in their daily exercise, or more prone to making healthier decisions such as packing their own lunch? Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to this question as there are multiple variables affecting each individual’s attitudes and behaviours in respect to exercise.
As a personal trainer, I am regularly hired to assist with motivation and accountability. People often understand the health-benefits of exercise and the potential health risks of not exercising; however, if they do not have a session booked (and, sometimes more importantly, paid for in advance) they are significantly less likely to exercise on their own. Clients will often ask me: “how can I stay more motivated to exercise on my own?”. When you consider the fact that everyone’s personal circumstances and life situations are unique, this becomes a much more multifaceted question. Unfortunately, there is no simple, cookie-cutter solution. An important point to remember is that even people who are diligent about working out, or athletes who are in top physical shape, do not find it easy to workout, either. Everyone experiences discomfort when pushing themselves physically – the difference is that untrained individuals will experience discomfort at a lower threshold or level of intensity. Practically speaking, the vast majority of people would prefer laying on the couch and watching a good television show as opposed to working out.
Maybe staying committed to an exercise plan is more about dedication rather than motivation. The Oxford dictionary defines motivation as a ‘desire or willingness to do something; enthusiasm’ or ‘a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way.’ Dedication is defined as ‘the quality of being dedicated or committed to a task or purpose’. If you were to register yourself for a race or competition, you are going to be more motivated to workout leading up to the event; however, what happens to your activity level afterwards? Are you likely to stay with it? Or, are you prone to slipping back into sedentary behaviours? Although ramping up your motivation and intensity by signing up for a race or event tends to help in the short term, a major part of my job as a trainer is to help people turn physical activity into a lifelong habit. That is, how to stay motivated after using a race or competition as the impetus to get on the right track. So… if people frame their attitude toward exercise as a form of dedication to their health and wellbeing, and not rely on ‘feeling motivated’ to stay active, will these individuals experience more success in persevering?
Here are four tips to staying dedicated (not necessarily motivated!) to working out:
1. Decide the day before – All our lives are busy. Planning ahead and setting aside time for exercise will help you mentally commit; otherwise, it is too easy to be swept away with all of our other daily chores and tasks. When you have already designated a specific time to workout (i.e. 6:00 am or during your child’s soccer practice, etc.,), your usual excuses are less likely to undermine your desire to be active.
2. A small amount is better than nothing at all – Do not get fixated on having to exercise for ‘x’ amount of time. It is more important to think about accruing exercise over a week, month, year, or even your entire lifetime. For example, committing 20-minutes of exercise, 6 days per week, is 120 minutes more than if you decided to not exercise because you didn’t feel 20-minutes was “worth your while”. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate-and vigorous-intensity activity per week; therefore, exercising for smaller amounts on a daily basis can be a more realistic approach to attaining the recommended amount.
3. Find a workout partner – A recent research study conducted at the University of Alberta had 273 non-exercising adults (35 to 65 years of age) on campus three times a week for a year to exercise. Over 60 percent of the participants dropped out before the end of the study, and of the remaining 40%, many did not continue working out after the study concluded. The researchers concluded that participants “seemed to work better if (the workout buddy) was someone (the participant) wasn’t too close to.” It seems we are more likely to talk a close friend or family member out of exercising while we feel more accountable to someone we are not as close with (i.e. arrange to workout with an acquaintance!).
4. Build exercise into your daily life – Walking or cycling to commute is a great way to build exercise into your routine. This way, the exercise can be viewed as “transportation time” rather than “exercise time”. If you live reasonably close to work, and you take into account the time you spend idling in traffic and parking, cycling often does not take significantly more time. Plus, you will receive the added benefit of being outdoors and not having your blood pressure rise from the drive. If you only need a handful of items from the grocery store, walking or cycling to and from the store is another great way to build exercise into your daily routines. These are just two examples of how you can add physical activity into your day without carving time out specifically to ‘hit the gym.’
Whenever you feel demotivated and are finding it difficult to exercise on a regular basis, remember… becoming and staying fit is more about winning the long-game of staying active over a lifetime versus what you have done in the past week. Choosing to be dedicated to your overall well-being, rather than slimming up for a holiday, or training hard for a short period of time for an event, may be more effective for persevering over the long term. Simply put, if life interrupts your ability to exercise for a period of time – don’t stress about it; instead, become dedicated to getting back on the horse as soon as possible when you get bucked off – and keep enjoying the ride once you are back in control.