How to Stay Excited to Exercise
Stop trying to find that thing you love to do.
A lot of people are trying to get back in shape after many months of downtime and there seems to be two main types of advice about exercising out there. The first is to set a schedule and stick to it. Exercise isn’t going to be fun, and so you must be disciplined about it to make it a part of your routine.
The other extreme is to find something you love to do. That way you never have to find the motivation to do it. You’ll just want to exercise because of how much fun it is.
In my experience, neither of these methods work. I have a third way that has worked miracles for me.
My History with Exercising
When I was in high school, I was a top gymnast. I qualified for and competed in the Junior Olympics. I was in the gym for 20 hours a week, constantly training.
I get the concept of being disciplined about exercise. Most of that training wasn’t fun. It consisted of doing the same things over and over until they were perfect.
After I stopped gymnastics, I kind of fell away from exercising at all for many years. The burnout was intense. When I came back to it, nothing really clicked. I tried to follow the common advice and nothing worked. I worried I’d never get into a consistent exercise routine again.
I spent a good decade trying to find things I liked doing. I started calling myself a runner and signing up for half-marathons to have the motivation to go do a run.
But sure enough, as soon as those races ended, I’d be back to doing nothing for months on end. I tried a bunch of other things like Yoga and weight training. Nothing sparked that excitement to keep me going.
These past few years I’ve managed to keep up a pretty great exercise regimen, and it took scrapping the conventional wisdom.
Ride that New Energy
If you’re reading this, you probably know what new exercise energy feels like. Maybe you signed up for a gym membership as a New Year’s resolution and made it there pretty consistently that first month before it faded away.
A longitudinal study by Norcross and Vangarelli of New Year’s resolutions showed that 46% of people had quit by the end of January. New exercise energy fades fast.
Maybe you took up a Couch-to-5K program and those first weeks were new and exciting. You actually saw progress and kept motivation before it got hard and tiring.
A more recent 2017 study showed that even paying people to go to the gym wasn’t a good enough motivation. It had a very slight effect for around 6 weeks and then had no effect after that.
If paying people to exercise doesn’t work, then good luck finding the motivation on your own. This is why I don’t recommend willpower to get excited to exercise. It might work for some people, but most people need something else.
No matter how much you like your current exercise routine, it’s going to get old at some point. Then you’ll be back to trying to scrounge up the motivation out of thin air.
That’s the key insight. Stop trying to find that one thing you love to do and just ride the new energy of a bunch of different things.
I’ll sign up for a race and train for that for a few weeks or a month. When that’s over, I’ll hit the gym for a few weeks to a month until that gets repetitive and boring.
When spring comes, I’ll get out and do some hiking in the woods. When summer makes it too hot for that to be comfortable, I’ll get inside for some Yoga. When the leaves change in the fall, I’ll go on bike rides in the countryside.
Take a 12-week dance class at a local dance school (yes, I did this and learned the difference between Rumba, Meringue, and Samba).
Did you like jump-roping as a kid? Try that! I’ll warn you: the experience was terrible when I tried it. With this method, I never had to do it again.
Join a community volleyball league. When you get bored, leave it and try something else.
The worst feeling is when you have a schedule you must follow, and then you realize it was terrible on the first day. You’ll certainly give up quickly no matter how disciplined you are.
What the Experts Will Say
I can already hear the experts complaining out there. I follow a bunch of people in the fitness industry to keep those ideas flowing. The best way to build muscle is to put in the reps with progressively increasing weight. You can’t do this if you quit after a few weeks.
The best way to build cardiovascular health is to consistently have cardio in your exercise routine. Most importantly, sticking to a few exercises with a disciplined routine helps you perfect movement to decrease the risk of injury.
A good workout program is designed to meet your goals, space out when different muscle groups are used to give solid recovery time, and make sure everything is hit.
Blah, blah, blah. I say screw it. Those experts are correct, but it is far better to consistently get out and exercise than to do it the perfect way that maximizes every benefit.
I never have an excuse to skip it. If I’m feeling bored with my current regimen, I’ll just Google for something new to try.
Ever wonder what it’s like to go rock climbing? Go with that friend who can’t stop talking about it. Maybe you discover a newfound fear of heights. Great! You never have to do it again.
Look, experts are going to say that you’ll never get good at anything with this method. You’ll never run that 5-minute mile. You’ll never free-solo El Capitan with Alex Hannold. You’ll never perform an Olympic weightlift with 600 lbs.
I don’t know about you, but all those things sound terrible to me. I never want to experience those things. At this point in my life, I’m just happy to have a relatively healthy body that I can exercise with.
Stop trying to find that thing you love. Very few of us will ever find it. Everything gets old and boring after a time. Stop relying on pure willpower to get through whatever is on your workout schedule. Jeff Hader’s book Why Motivation is a Myth is a long-form refutation that motivation even exists as an abstract idea.
Instead, get creative. Go from thing to thing. Ride that new exercise energy throughout the year and never miss a workout again.
I know you’re thinking this is all very obvious, but ask yourself this. When you woke up and thought, “Ugh. I don’t want to go to the gym today.” Was your first reaction, “But I have to.” Or was it, “Oh, well let’s think of something I do want to do.”
Training yourself to switch activities when the dreaded boredom sets in might sound obvious, but it’s a skill you must develop.