Nutrition counseling for every body


Photo credit D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

Jill came to me a couple of weeks ago with this flat-out declaration: “I have no motivation to exercise. I haven’t done anything for over a month.” I waited silently to hear the story behind the exasperation, but that was it. She had lobbed the ball into my court and was waiting for me hit it back.

I could empathize with Jill; it’s incredibly frustrating to be caught in that struggle between intellect (“I know I should exercise”) and spirit (“Yeah, but I really don’t feel like it”). These kinds of internal debates make a big mess of things in my mind, tangling my thoughts into a gnarly knot until I’m paralyzed.

Walnut illustration

I would be a wealthy woman if I had the magic wand to unravel those knots and restore motivation. But alas, I know of no instant solutions. In Jill’s case, all I could do was ask questions to help her pick that knot apart strand by strand.

First question: What do you want? I mean really, really want for your health and wellbeing? It’s a tough question to answer because we’re rarely, if ever, asked. But if we’re ever going to make progress, it’s crucial to know exactly where we’re headed. There’s nothing like a compelling vision of the future to make all of the hard work and bulls**t worthwhile.

Consider the difference between an answer like “I don’t want ____ (a stroke, heart attack, diabetes),” and “I see myself hiking with my husband and kids to our favorite mountain lakes. We have so much fun together, and our best conversations happen when we’re on the trail. I like feeling strong so I can keep up with the kids and just enjoy our time as a family.” Which kind of answer would motivate you?

Next question: How is your exercise plan related to your vision for a healthy life?  If there is no connection between what you want and what you’re asking yourself to do, motivation will come to a screeching halt. Jill told me that her workout routine was all about daily, strenuous core exercises, which, as it turns out, have nothing to do with her vision. Now we were getting somewhere!

Third question: Are you having any fun? Rolling out of bed every morning for a grueling ab workout doesn’t sound particularly inspiring. If the thought of exercise conjures up images of pain and torture, it’s time to try something else. Why not make exercise playful and interesting?

Next: Tell me about a time when you did feel motivated to exercise. Motivation and confidence soar when you recall your past accomplishments. See if you can name the key ingredients that kept you motivated. Did you have an exercise buddy? Were you training for a race or event? Did you enjoy a particular fitness class or exercise DVD? Did you track your progress? Try to be specific about the motivation strategies that work for you; they’re definitely worth repeating.

People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.  ~Zig Ziglar

Finally: What immediate benefits do you feel in your body and mind when you exercise? Exercise definitely serves lots of long-term goals, but it also brings immediate payoffs. See if you can identify those in-the-moment good feelings, and then stretch them out for as long as possible:          

  • Before physical activity, try to anticipate the rewards: “The tension in my shoulders and jaw is going to melt away as soon as I get my blood pumping.”
  • Savor the good feelings as they’re happening, in the moment: “Ah, there it goes.  The weight has been lifted.  Farewell, stress!”
  • Later on, relive the good feelings by telling a caring person about your experience: “I went for a walk last night after work, and I can’t believe how good it felt. I relaxed almost right away, and it was like I didn’t have a care in the world.”
  • Finally, jot down a few quick notes about the experience: “Tired and stressed after work. Went for a walk anyway. Felt refreshed. Kids noticed that I wasn’t grumpy.” In other words, leave yourself some evidence about a time when you were successful.  These notes will come in handy in case you lose your motivation again.

Jill emailed me a week after we talked about motivation. Guess who’s exercising again? I’m so proud of her for unraveling that knot and freeing herself!