Motivation is Fickle: Tips on Returning to Exercise After a Break
Oh motivation you fickle little bitch. Motivation is a fairy-tale nymph - she dances in while we’re feeling emotionally vulnerable in Dick’s Sporting Goods and encourages us to purchase expensive healthy living equipment thinking: “This time will be different.” She buzzes around our heads while we’re committing to expensive yoga class packages but conveniently pulls an abrupt dip out when we’re silencing alarm clocks ten minutes before class.
Jessamyn Stanley has it so right. Motivation is not a good friend when starting back into an exercise routine. Motivation doesn’t even feature when we first start back. The meeting with an actual friend, the feeling that comes after exercise and the knowledge that we are doing good things for our health are our first spring-boards into starting up again. And, as summer winds down and the routine of everyday life kicks back in. It is time. Time to hit the park, the mat, the pavement. Whatever works, whatever gets us moving again.
Just Go Gently
The hardest thing for me when getting back up in the air again is realising just how unfit I am. I am always surprised by it. I forget that fitness isn’t a constant thing that I always have. What I do remember is that I’ve got there before I can do it again. We all have varying levels of fitness over the course of our life but our bodies are amazing and adaptable and never lose the ability to gain fitness no matter how unfit or old we are.
The first weeks back are tough and expectations need to be reasonable. Too much too soon can be defeating, emotionally and physically. My first day back I aim to get in the air and swing for 10 minutes - anything more is a bonus. I have learnt the hard way that coming in at 100% after a break just leads to injury.
I also see with friends and clients that a month of a go-hard-or-go-home mindset quickly becomes I-went-too-hard-so-now-I’m-staying-home. Eating “perfectly” and training every day is too hard to maintain. A gradual build up with a slow and steady approach is much easier to sustain. A relaxed eating philosophy of feeding myself with good food is much easier to live with than one that punishes. I love the @be_real_campaign maxim that you only need to feel guilty about eating food - if you stole it. “I’m not allowed to eat that” doesn’t leave space for listening to your body’s signals and needs.
Listen to Your Body
And. Listening to your body is important. Before you start exercising, notice your breath, tension levels, where you hold your weight and pay attention to your body’s movement habits. Take a minute to notice these things after exercise and compare the differences. It is important to pay attention to your body while you are moving because pain is like a persistent toddler if we don’t hear it when it is whispering to us then it becomes a screaming tantrum.
Rest days are important too. Even though it feels as if your body is taking the day off, it is actually working hard repairing and rebuilding itself so that it will be stronger for the next time you ask it to do a push up or go for a run.
Feeling tired when you start back is to be expected too. Your body has had to work harder and adapt to increased muscle and tissue stress - taking a nap if you can is great or going to bed a little earlier might be necessary for the first few weeks.
Even if you choose to exercise just one day a week, put it in the calendar. Book a babysitter if necessary. I have been going to the same contemporary dance class since my son was a baby and it has taken years but I am pretty good now. I won’t ever be a professional dancer but that has never been my goal. By committing to one day a week for 7 years I have accumulated hundreds of hours of dance training.
Know Your ‘Why’
I didn’t start my dance class with any motivation other than the need to be in my body again and to reclaim some ownership over it. Sometimes focusing on the ‘why’ you exercise is all the reminder you need to get out of the house and do it. It might be to get out in nature; to move your body; to manage stress; for mental health; for stronger bones; for greater strength and flexibility; increased energy; or better sleep. On your way to class/ the mat/ the park focus on your ‘why’ and visualise how amazing and proud of yourself you will feel as you move. After you have exercised bask in the feelings of accomplishment for getting back to it and feeding your spirit.
Meet up with Friends
The really cool thing about Park Run is that it is social, supportive and free. I go with my kids from time to time. What always gets us there is when we know one of the their friends will also be going. Friends are such great motivators. If you aren’t a runner do you have a friend who will walk with you regularly? Do you have a buddy who’ll come to class with you? Do you have someone who comes to class anyway who’ll go for coffee with you after class?
That post class reward is important too. When you pair exercise with something pleasant like a catch up with a friend or a delicious coffee, then your brain decides that the whole experience was something you enjoyed and you’ll do it more often.
Plan for Obstacles
We all have things that keep us from being active, they tend to be the same things for the same people which means that they can be planned for and overcome.
My three things are
Sick children: when either of my two are home sick, if they can’t leave the house then I will stream a Pilates Anytime class. You don’t need to subscribe to a fitness channel though with the millions of Youtube videos out there (just be sensible and use your judgement on your choice of trainer).
A warm bed and a good book: accountability partners are brilliant here. Get a friend to text you an hour before the class or your scheduled exercise starts. Their reminder text acts as an external motivator when you have a very strong internal motivation not to leave the house. You can do the same for them.
Holiday: My family incorporate movement into our holidays because we value time in nature. On top of this we go on an HF walking holiday every year. When we visit family or are in places where we can’t move lots we plan holiday homework. I am working on some personal balance challenges over the summer break. I recommend that you pick 5 exercises that you can stick to regularly - things like arm circles, side bends, squats, balancing on 1 leg and wall push ups combine strength and mobility and only take a few minutes a day.
Being down on yourself for not moving enough won't make you feel motivated to get back to it. Life happens. Committing to just a little movement every day is a start. Go gently, listen to your body, timetable your exercise, meet up with friends and plan for obstacles. Hope to see you in class ;)
We start back on Friday the 13th of September
Primrose Hill Community Centre