Kickstarting your exercise routine when your motivation is in a slump.

No matter how committed you may be to your fitness, you will undoubtedly go through interruptions to your regular exercise routine due to illness, social engagements, travel, etc. Although I have been regularly active for a long time, I sometimes find these interruptions difficult to recover from – especially if the interruption is a lengthy one. Fortunately, I’ve been using a simple solution that seems to jumpstart my activity after a period of extended inactivity.

First off, it is key to note that I try to exercise even when I’m on vacation; I don’t think I’ve ever stayed at a hotel and not used their gym. In fact, when we were backpacking through South America last summer, instead of an extra paid of underwear, I brought along my skipping rope (a decision I regretted on a number of occasions). And when all that fails, I’ve been known to use my luggage and whatever furniture is available to get a quick workout.

The problem occurs when I haven’t been able to get a decent workout in a while. When this happens, as time passes I become progressively less motivated to get back into the exercise routine. With every day of inactivity I sense as though the hurdle that I need to overcome to be active again becomes greater.

Part of the problem is that I enjoy intense workouts. When I take some time off, I know I won’t be able to bring the same level of intensity I did when I was regularly exercising for some time. And this very thought is what discourages me from getting back on the horse, so to speak.

Thus, whenever I am in such a slump, I allow myself a series of “going through the motions” workouts. In essence, I force myself to go to the gym or on a run, with a very simple goal: simply to do something. On such days, I will run slower, lift less weight, and generally push very little during the workout. Sometimes I may even do a fraction of my normal workout. It really doesn’t matter. At the end of it, I did something and tomorrow’s workout will be that much better.

I’ve recently found that this change in thinking is just what I need to jumpstart my exercise routine when I’ve fallen off the wagon. While having an intense workout after a week of inactivity seems like a daunting task, merely putting on your gym clothes and half-heartedly doing a couple push-ups is much more achievable.

I mention this idea as just a few days ago I had to play this trick on myself to jumpstart my workout routine after a week of too much food and drink, and not enough movement or sleep, while attending a good friend’s wedding in the Dominican Republic.

What tricks do you play on yourself to keep yourself motivated and dedicated to maintaining your activity level?


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22 Responses to Kickstarting your exercise routine when your motivation is in a slump.

  1. George D says:

    As you mention, regularity is important. If you’re like me, goal fixated and obsessive, it can be hard when that’s torn away from you – literally a demotivator.

    I’m getting back into swimming, doing something I enjoy a lot. My practice is to go 6 days a week without fail, and increase by ~10% consistently week on week. I’m back up to 1200m, and next week will be 1300m This morning was hard, for example, since I’d failed to fall asleep before 1am, and so getting up at 5.40 was going to kick me. But I knew that the psychological toll of missing a second day in a week would hurt me more. It’s also nice to have the visible reward of a better body and the pump of chemicals an hour’s swimming gives.

    Consistency is the key. If you know that next week you’ll be pushing harder, then today gets easier.

    • You bring up an interesting notion – the psychological toll of missing an exercise session. I know exactly where you are coming from. I would much rather have a quick, albeit lackluster workout, and feel good about keeping up the activity rather than taking a day off and then beating myself up all day about not doing so.

  2. Kaz says:

    Peter, I am hearing you, if I stop (which currently I have), the kickstart is harder, I did my yoga (short session) a couple of days ago and it was hard and I normally do it no probs. I agree George, consistency is the key and my goal.
    I believe my biggest trick is getting my clothes ready the night before. I get up put them on before I realise, then think okay let’s go. So now I have just been motivated to do this tonight. Thanks Peter

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  4. Katie says:

    Hi, I’m a new reader, but I could totally relate to what you were saying in your post. You may have already covered this elsewhere, but do you know of people who have particular trouble getting going in winter? I love being active when it’s warm, even unpleasantly hot, out. However, in winter my motivation seems to go away, and even if I get myself going, I feel like I can’t perform as well and, I think most importantly, I don’t feel nearly as good after a work out. Then I’m not as motivated to work out the next day, etc. I’m normally a very active person, but this past winter I had a lot going on, and I just didn’t exercise for the entire season. And, while normally I feel gross and restless if I don’t exercise, that simply didn’t kick in for me until the weather got warmer. I’ve talked to a lot of people who said similar things. Is this common? Is there a name & scientific reason for it? Tricks for getting around it? I think the biggest confusion for me is, when it’s cold out I simply don’t physically feel better or healthier or happier after working out, while when it’s warm out I feel amazing during & after an intense work out, which is what motivates me to keep doing it.

    • Hi Katie! What you describe sounds like a seasonal variation in motivation to be physically active. I have certainly noticed this in my own behavior. Based on a very quick Google Scholar search I found a few studies reporting that recreational activity definitely slumps during the fall and winter. This isn’t terribly surprising. Not feeling as good after the workout in the winter vs. summer is something I have not heard before. Obviously when I go for a run in the winter, the loss of sensation to my face isn’t that enjoyable, but I still feel much better after the workout. Interesting…

    • Anu says:

      Have you considered trying to find a winter sport to play? If you had a sport you enjoyed that you could only play in the winter time you might find yourself exercising more in the winter, and even looking forward to that season for fitness.

  5. Rhodia says:

    I find it easier to stay motivated, and to get myself back on track when circumstances have derailed me, when I am actually training for a particular event, such as a race. When I have a goal race on a particular date, taking too much time off makes me worry that I will not be prepared. Even more so if I have already paid and registered. And even more so if I am following an actual training plan. I am more motivated by seeing myself as an athlete in training than by seeing myself as an exerciser trying to stay in shape.

  6. Krista says:

    I’m going on holiday in a week and my plan is to work activity into the vacation- so we are planning to do lots of hiking, kayaking and swimming. That way I am still getting exercise but in a fun way and I’m hoping this will make it easier to get back into my regular work out routine once I’m back.

  7. Atif says:

    Part of the problem is when you start self-limiting. Saying “I’m too tired today” or “I’ll go tomorrow.” If I’ve got time, I force myself to go to the gym – once I’m there I find I’m much more energetic and I’m glad I went, but that mental hurdle is tough to get over.

    Sure, you might not set any PBs when you’re coming back from a hiatus, but I definitely agree that something is better than nothing.

  8. Carmen says:

    Getting workouts while on vacation or on biz travel is extremely important. Also trying to maintain some semblance of a decent diet.

    One thing that helps me during a slump is actually engaging in a sport, not necessarily just a workout. I play tennis and soccer, and occasionally basketball, so will try to get in one of those to kickstart some activity. With tennis, even if I can find a wall to hit against for 20 minutes, it’s at least something. Basketball, just shooting around for 15-20 minutes, trying to make it as active as possible, maybe a few sets of crunches or pushups thrown in here and there.

    And with soccer, a ball, a decent size field and some kind of net is enough to at least get out and run around, work on certain skills, go through game-like scenarios in my head and act-out what I might do in a given situation. In the winter, I’ve been known to kick a ball into a large, old ottoman in the basement for 10 minutes, throw in a few sets of some footwork drills on an agility ladder, back to the kicks, then a few sets of crunches, etc., more kicking, more footwork, music playing loudly to set the right mood…

  9. I definitely use the small steps technique with exercise when I feel that my activity is down and so is my energy. I also focus on just moving in general more throughout the day even if it’s walking around the office or house faster. The other thing I do is to make a plan (as I did today) to give priority to those things that will get me back on track: “After breakfast I’ll work abs while watching something entertaining, then I’ll do my meditation, then go outside for a little gardening, and walk in the evening.” The idea is to just follow the sequence without regard to how intense each task will be.

  10. Otto Hunt says:

    I use a 3-pound weighted jump rope (less buffeted by the wind) on days that I don’t go to the gym. I also crave an intense workout. Not all days are the same (duh!) so on the less-motivated days I say to myself (I’ll just do 60 (gets me barely breathing hard). So I do 60, and it feels good. Then, invariably, I end up doing my usual workout.

    BTW, I have found that muscle fatigue mimics aerobic fatigue. So by switching sides I am able to do a lot more jumps: 120 left, then 120 right; 80 left, then 80 right, 60 – 60, 60-100 (I get crazy near the end – and my left leg is stronger).

  11. Jo says:

    A good friend of mine has the “touch the gym door” policy. He gives himself permission to arrive at the gym, touch the door and go home. But he HAS to touch the door. He’s taken advantage of it a few times, so it’s a real deal policy, but most of the time he finds that he gets to the door and then it’s easier to just go ahead in once he’s made it all the way there.

  12. Dava says:

    I love the “touch the gym door” idea. For me, it’s 90% of getting to the gym, or a walk or starting a workout routine. I tell myself “whatever it takes” to get me started–like a new song on my workout playlist or a fancy soap to reward myself after a tough session. Having my husband’s words of, “you’ll never be sad you went” is a huge help for me, too.

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  14. steve says:

    My core exercise is about an hour of rowing early in the morning before the day gets going. It is often mind-numbingly boring and I should be doing something more varied, but it has had an enormously positive impact on my health and physical shape for about three years.

    I use a couple of techniques to stay motivated. One is having a good set of podcasts. To give myself the time I cut out over an hour of normal tv watching or radio listening in the evening. If I have something to look forward to, I tend to want to start into the routine.

    The second technique is more successful. A close family friend is a professional athlete (beach volleyball). She acts as my coach and cheerleader. Every day I send her a sms message with my time and average power level and she uses her discretion to apply praise or not. She also sets some goals and has vastly improved my performance over the years. Having an expert human in the loop can be very useful!

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  16. maxh says:

    I don’t have a car so have a choice of cycling to work or taking the bus.Obviously cycling is the cheaper and more flexible option and I always try to cycle every day. It’s not far, 2.5 miles each way but I live on the seafront so am often cycling against 25mph winds!

    I will only take the bus if it’s raining or I’m sick. I can’t afford to otherwise. So having exercise built into my day like this means that I know I’m getting a bare minimum for 30mins aerobic exercise every day.

  17. nepsmummy says:

    after almost 5 years of being sickly and inactive and gaining 60+ libs I am once again starting to feel healthy but so short of breathe that even walking is difficult…I have a long ways to go ahead of me and listening to all that u people do is rather disheartening…but I guess I must start somewhere…At the moment it is too hot and humid to even walk outside for any distance so thats out even…and when I start to get too hot I break out in an itchy rash,little water blisters everywhere….new developement,so I guess I will have to get my butt into a pool and do some aquafit until fall comes….Excersise is the answer to go along with my new food regime for sure..they go hand in hand and I want my old self back!!!!

  18. Great Read, really enjoyed it, Well done.