How to stay motivated to exercise

It is late in the year, very late. We have all had an intense 2019, days are short and Christmas sweets are plentiful. How on earth are we supposed to stay motivated when it is cold and dark and we are tired. Especially for things that aren’t always easy – inspiration, productivity or exercise.
Well, maybe we don’t need to.

Why motivation isn’t everything and what else you actually need

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all felt inspired or motivated all the time, if we always “felt like getting the thing done”? That certainly would be nice but it is absolutely unrealistic and unattainable. And striving for unbroken motivation will only lead to disappointment.
That is all well and good, but what about getting exercise in during the winter months whilst still juggling everything else? How do we do it?

Well, by creating something far more powerful than motivation – habit.

The formula for powerful habits

Forming a habit isn’t easy but it is well worth it in the long run. Habit will carry you through all those times where you are not motivated, not inspired or when you “just don’t feel like it”. And that includes exercise despite freezing weather and dark mornings, downpours and low days.

The main ingredients for a strong and reliable habit are two things: Time and the right headspace. There are different theories out there regarding how long it takes to form a habit – 21 days, 66 days, 99 days depending on where you look – but the idea is that you repeat a behaviour often enough for it to become automatic. The more automatic a behaviour is, the less you have to think about it, thus reducing the amount of decision making, willpower and – yes, you’ve guessed it – motivation you need to perform said behaviour. The idea is to make the behaviour so habitual that it feels odd to not perform it. This stops our brain’s ways of talking us out of something right in its tracks.

The second cornerstone of habit is the right headspace. Generally, positive reinforcement will stick better than negative reinforcement. It will feel much better to form habits from a place of love rather than from a place of lack. In terms of exercise, this means that you never need to come at it from an angle of earning anything or even punishing yourself. You do not need to earn this bite of marzipan loaf and you certainly do not have to punish yourself for the Christmas party cocktail. Our bodies need nutrition, hydration, stimulation and movement. They deserve all of these things. Giving these things to our bodies is the kind and loving decision to make, the truest form of self-care.

Instead of viewing exercise as an unpleasant thing that you need to do on top of all the other things in life you need to do, view every time you could choose to exercise as an opportunity to make the right decision for your body. The difference between the two approaches appears to be small and not tangible in the beginning but it will become stronger over time.


Here are some things you might be saying to yourself when you think about exercise:

I want to be fitter.

I could do with shedding a few pounds.

I have eaten too much, I should work out.

All of those thoughts come from a place of lack, fueled by something you don’t have and driven by not being enough or even feeling the need to earn what you already deserve or punishing yourself.

Instead, maybe try adding a few more of those thoughts in:

I have this amazingly capable body and I want to do something good for it.

I really want to build on my current fitness level.

My body deserves fuel and movement and I want to provide it.

This is more the angle of what you already have and why exercising is actually the kinder choice. The reward comes from making these good choices and from working with your body and your desires, not against them.


That said, note that there is nothing wrong with goal setting, specific fitness aims or pushing yourself every now and again – as long as the headspace remains one of kindness and of being enough.

Removing obstacles and form brain networks

So we have established that building a habit is possible but hard and that it takes brain capacity and time. Both extremely valuable resources and nothing we would want to waste, ever. So the exercise we can make the whole habit-forming thing on us, the better!

Building a habit that is totally going against your grain will be so much harder to achieve and it will most likely not stick or it won’t make you feel very good. And what good would that habit be then? There are a few things we can do to make it easier for ourselves: Know our why, remove obstacles, solidify patterns.

Know your why

There will be times where you will question why you are subjecting yourself to the effort of building an exercise habit. Perfectly valid and very individual question. So make sure you have your perfectly valid and individual answer to hand for when that happens. Why ARE you doing this? Figure out your personal WHY when you embark on this journey, write it down somewhere if you want to and be as specific as you can be. And remember, make it come from a place of love, not lack.

Remove obstacles

When you have your why make sure you have everything in place to be able to easily access everything you need to form your exercise habit. Remove all the obstacles that are keeping you from doing it. These can be logistics such as not having your gym wear ready on the days when you need it or the times where you are planning to exercise are totally clashing with other commitments. But obstacles can also be emotional. Again, we want to work with our grain, not against it. Be really observant in the beginning, what do you FEEL when you hit a roadblock? Feel too exposed in the neon light of your gym? You love running outside but it is too cold in the winter? There are a gazillion things that can feel just not right when exercising but there are also a gazillion ways around these things. But we need to identify our personal hurdles.

Solidify the patterns

And lastly, give your brain the chance to solidify these new patterns. After all, you are asking a lot of it. When forming a new habit the literal structure of our brain changes. Not an easy task to perform! So help it along its way. Associate all the good brain chemicals with your new routine: Make habit trackers where you get to cross off every day you’ve exercised, make a list in your head why you are grateful for the exercises you are able to do, review your progress, be proud of yourself.

Everything in moderation

So there you have it, how to stay motivated for exercise has actually nothing to do with motivation. Who would have thought. So now we can all embark on our habit-building journey and be consistent with our exercise henceforth.

But wait! A couple more thoughts before we all start building habits.

Forming a habit is a time-intensive process and it will not progress linear – so be patient with yourself. The time it will take you and your brain to form a habit might very well take us past the cold and dark winter months and into spring where everything is a little bit easier anyway. If that I the case, don’t throw your habit-building out of the window, instead use that momentum and keep building, it will pay off in the long run and the next winter or phase where we don’t want to exercise will be here eventually.

Also, never stop listening to your body. If in the midst of forming a habit your body needs rest, let it rest. If it would be the kinder choice not to exercise on any given day, don’t. Learn to recognise the difference between moments where you need to push through a feeling and moments where you need to just flow with your own tide. Only you know the difference between the two and only you knows what the kindest choice for your body is.

Happy exercising!

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