How Your Mind Keeps You From Exercising

Woman napping on an exercise bike
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There are plenty of lazy people in this world, but most of us don't fall into that category. There are also lots of reasons why people don't exercise, but one of the most common challenges is simply maintaining the motivation to work out. While it's OK to be flexible with yourself and your exercise goals, making healthy habits like exercise part of your regular routine can have a significant impact on your health and well-being. Use these ideas to rebuild your confidence, boost your motivation, and enjoy the benefits of regular exercise.

The Voices in Your Head

There's a good chance you have some voices in your head. These voices belong to everyone from your parents to that guy on TV to your favorite Instagrammer. Your most prominent voice, however, is probably one of your own. Perhaps you've even had arguments with yourself:

You: Time to work out!
Also You: Uh, I don't really feel like it. I'm tired.
You: Come on...We already missed our workout yesterday.
Also You: Two days? Big deal!
You: But every time we skip a workout, it gets easier not to exercise.
Also You: I'm tired. The last thing I want to do is some boring, sweaty workout.
You: Tired from what? Sitting in front of a computer all day?
Also You: Hey, our favorite show is on! Don't you want to watch it?
You: Well, I guess we could watch TV and then work out.
Also You: That's what I'm talking about!

Next thing you know, you're propped on the couch with a cramp in your hand from channel surfing. How did that happen?

How to Silence the Unhelpful Voices

Sometimes you should listen to the voices that are telling you to take a day off or opt for a gentler workout. But most times, you'll need to be ready to stand up to the unhelpful voice to stay motivated:

  • Stop the argument. For every excuse, reply, "I'm working out anyway." Better yet, "I'm not listening! La la la la!" Remind yourself of why you're committing to exercise and why those reasons outweigh what the voices are saying.
  • Be prepared and remove obstacles. Removing the other obstacles to exercise means you'll only have the voice to deal with. For example, having your workout gear handy and your exercise time scheduled can be a big help.
  • Don't give the voice time to chime in. If you plan to exercise after work, don't let yourself sit down and watch TV or talk yourself into going home instead of the gym. If you need a transition, try something gentle but active, like stretching or doing a light, satisfying chore. If you exercise in the morning, put on your workout clothes right away so you have one less obstacle between you and your workout.

If you feel tired, ask yourself if it's physical or mental. If your tiredness isn't due to a lack of sleep, illness, or a physically-demanding job, chances are you're mentally tired. While mental exhaustion can often feel physical, one of the best cures is physical activity and, once you get started, you'll feel better. Really.

Now, that you've dealt with the voices in your head, it's time to figure out how to be enthusiastic about exercise (yes, it's possible).

Exercise Fears That Get in the Way

You excitedly plan a week's worth of exercise routines on Sunday, but Monday comes and suddenly your early morning workout sounds about as much fun as cleaning the toilet. What happened to that enthusiasm? Are you lazy?

Not necessarily. Instead, you may be intimidated. You may be afraid that:

  • You won't be able to go very far. What if you can only make it for 5 minutes? Lame!
  • It will be hard. You'll have to change clothes, then you'll have to sweat (ugh). Your lungs will burn, your legs will hurt. No thanks!
  • You won't reach your goals or the guidelines set out by the ACSM. The ACSM recommends up to 60 minutes of exercise 5 days a week. If you can't do that, why bother?
  • You won't be perfect. What if you pass other "real" exercisers while you huff and puff? What will they think?

The need to do it right, to do it perfectly, or to work as hard as you can is what makes it hard to do in the first place. So start with baby steps.

How to Fight Fear and Recapture Enthusiasm

Ask yourself if fear is stopping you from even starting. If you're up against exercise fears, try:

  • Redefining your idea of exercise. Does workout equal work in your mind? It doesn't have to. Think about it like this: If you've been sitting in a stuffy office all day, you now have 30 whole minutes to get out of there for a while. Or maybe you've been caring for your kids, and now you get some time to yourself to do something just for you. That's not just exercise—that's sanity!
  • Asking for help. Is there someone—a colleague, friend, or partner—you trust? Tell them you're having trouble sticking with exercise and ask them to work out with you.
  • Reminding yourself. Write yourself notes and put them on your computer, your car, your shoes…everywhere. Remind yourself of your exercise goals ("I will exercise for 30 minutes today") and why you're doing it ("I want to have more energy").
  • Do what you can. If you can't work out for 30 minutes yet, so what? Go for as long as you can and do more tomorrow. It's that simple and it all counts.

Now, you've got your head on straight, why not play a few mind games with yourself? Using your imagination and tapping into your psyche can add a little motivation to your workouts on those days when it's hard to get moving.

Mind Games for Motivation

The imagination is a powerful tool and one you can use for your exercise routines. When the issue is motivation, it's your mind you're up against, so you have to convince it that there really is a good reason to exercise. Here's how to use your mind-over-matter skills:

  • Set achievable goals. Nothing can stop you in your tracks faster than staring up at a goal you fear you can't achieve. While you can have big exercise goals, make sure that you also set smaller goals along the way. That way, you have smaller, more frequent victories to celebrate and keep you motivated to keep moving.
  • Make a deal with yourself. You'll exercise for 15 minutes and if you still really don't want to continue, then you can stop. Nine times out of 10, you'll keep going.
  • Tap into your competitive side. A little healthy competition can be a great motivator. Try competing with yourself for faster times, higher weights, or just more frequency. Or maybe use social media and apps like MapMyRun or FitBit to compete with friends.
  • Give yourself a reward. If you finish your workout, reward yourself. While exercise comes with its own natural rewards (like more energy, better mood, less stress, and lowering your risk of disease), external rewards work, too. Maybe the promise of a new pair of shoes, an hour reading your favorite book, or a massage will get you going.
  • Visualize. Athletes often visualize themselves winning a race to get themselves pumped up. You can do the same thing by picturing yourself going through your workout from beginning to end. How do you feel when you're finished? Visualize your success and make it happen.
  • Pretend. Make believe can alter your mindset. Pretend you're in a race, and if you win you get a million dollars. Pretend that you're racing to catch a bus, or that if you make it home in a certain amount of time, Nike will be there to put you in one of their "Just Do It" commercials. Anything that makes you want to move works!
  • Work things out. One great thing about exercise is that it gives you quiet time to think about any problems you're facing. Use your workout time to work through problems. You'll be amazed at the results!

A Word From Verywell

Changing your lifestyle to include exercise is no easy task. The most important task is to adjust your attitude. Thinking about exercise as an obligation will never motivate you to do it. Instead, treat exercise like a break from a stressful day, a reward for a body that has worked so hard for you all day long, and as something that deserves a reward at the end.

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Article Sources

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  2. Renner F, Murphy FC, Ji JL, Manly T, Holmes EA. Mental imagery as a "motivational amplifier" to promote activities. Behav Res Ther. 2019;114:51-59. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2019.02.002