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Self-discipline and exercise: “Why I don’t rely on motivation to workout”

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Lacking exercise motivation? That matters less than you might think, explains senior writer Chloe Gray. 

“I just don’t have the motivation like you do…” is a phrase my friends have wailed at me multiple times when trying to explain why they’re struggling to prioritise exercise. They’re not the only ones who struggle with feeling unmotivated: it’s why most people quit their New Year’s Resolution by 19 January, according to fitness app Strava. And according to Sport England, people were less likely to exercise in the second lockdown than the first, which they attributed to a decline in motivation for home workouts.

As someone who works out up to five times a week, I’m frequently asked how it is that I want to go to the gym so regularly and how my desire to train doesn’t wane week on week. But here’s my secret: I’m not always motivated to exercise.

Sure, I sometimes wake up feeling excited to go to the gym, but it’s not likely that you’ll catch me punching the air and jumping out of bed when my 6AM alarm goes off. But while I may slump to the gym, I always feel more positive about my session once I’ve started. Exercise motivation (as we talk about it now) is a complicated and, in my opinion, pointless narrative. So why are we all so obsessed with it? 

The truth about exercise motivation

First of all, the idea that feeling motivated means being totally pumped to complete your workout is wrong. To have ‘motivation’ really just means having a reason to do something. Motivation isn’t synonymous with excitement; having a reason to go to the gym is totally different from feeling constantly thrilled about doing so.

Let’s take another example. Are you always excited to brush your teeth or fill out your tax form? Probably not – but you do them anyway, don’t you? Perhaps slowly or begrudgingly, but they’re still done because you have a reason for doing them (you don’t want your teeth to fall out/you don’t want to be fined or jailed). And I bet you feel better after they’re done. 

Chloe Gray sat on the floor laughing in the gym
Exercise motivation: enjoying exercise is crucial - but always being excited isn't

While some may disagree with the idea that motivation doesn’t have to be a key part of fitness (sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry, for example, told me that she rarely sees athletes being very successful at consistently exercising without motivation), it holds true in my experience. That in no way does that mean that you should be dragging yourself through a workout on the days you don’t want to or your body needs a rest. I skip sessions more regularly than I care to talk about, and my recovery days are absolutely non-negotiable. But there’s a difference between choosing not to exercise on a particular day and not having the drive to stick to a general routine. 

Motivation is, I think, glamourised on social media. While there’s absolutely everything right with people sharing how exciting exercise can be, it can also be misleading. The flashy workouts, gorgeous activewear and big juicy smiles makes training feel inaccessibly glamorous. The reality is that most of us turn up to a grey gym in an already-sweaty sports bra ready to avoid eye contact with pretty much everyone. It’s not pretty or enchanting – but that doesn’t make it boring or pointless. Yet, you can see why people lose their buzz when they expect influencer-level workouts and they get a smelly, budget gym.

I’m not saying motivation (in the colloquial form) doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t train in the way that I do if I didn’t love it – and I genuinely enjoy every session. But motivation is like a flaky Hinge date – it can cancel on you at any minute, even if you’re just about to head out the door. You can’t rely on them to ever turn up or stay for the whole evening. Instead, it comes down to discipline and reasoning, rather than motivation. 

Chloe Gray doing walking lunges with a barbell
Exercise motivation: you feel better after a workout.

How to exercise when you’re unmotivated

If the novelty for your new routine is slowly dwindling or you can’t find a way to simply start, the easiest thing to do is take it back to that pure definition of motivation. What is your real reason for exercising?

Anecdotally, finding a reason for training that isn’t just aesthetically driven tends to be a bit more long-lasting. Focus on the fact that going to the gym is the only hour a day you get to yourself, or how good your mind feels after yoga. Choosing a movement you love is also a key part of that. No matter how important heart health, community or nature is to you, you’ll never stick with running if you simply hate running

To make exercise a real life habit, though, you need to fit it into your routine. That means finding a time that you can dedicate to exercise and sticking with it for a few weeks. It takes a while for exercise to become a natural part of your day but, once it does, you’ll notice you start to feel excited about it.

Finally, remember that you should never force yourself to exercise. On the days you wake up and know your mind or body need a rest, take it. Overdoing it is a shortcut to burnout and the end of your fitness routine – the opposite of what you want. 

Images: Getty / Chloe Gray

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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