March 28, 2017

Exercise Motivation, The Weird Way

image: flikr

Do you look forward to a strenuous workout?

If so, congratulations! But the rest of what follows may seem like incomprehensible gibberish to you. If you don't need to twist your brain into pretzel-like configurations in order to motivate yourself to exercise: you are free to resume websurfing. Enjoy a few more videos of rhinos cuddling with meekrats, or watch with terrified fascination as the next Trumpian plans for the apocalypse are announced. Google up a tasty gluten-free avocado brownie recipe! Or hell, go out and run a marathon and follow it up with a nice little nap.

There all sorts of healthy ways to motivate to exercise! I've talked a lot about exercise motivation and demotivation and remotivation over the years, and will doubtlessly yammer on for years to come. I have all kinds of healthy motivational tricks that I'm not embarrassed to share, and these are a large part of my aresenal.

But there is also a seamy back-alley of exercise will-power, and I have some other secrets you don't see mentioned in respectable publications. Yet for some of us, these are a real help in keeping us consistent throughout the years, yielding the numerous physical and emotional benefits that sedentary people do not get to enjoy.

Just what the heck am I talking about?

But first, a little more about what I'm up against. Anyone else?

Doing Battle With Natural Reluctance and Sloth

Here's the problem: I have a highly evolved human brain. It knows vigorous exercise is good for me. But still: I don't wanna.

The prospect of changing into a special outfit, removing myself from my comfortable house, transporting myself to some inconvenient location in order to lift heavy things over and over, or flail around until my heart pounds and my legs weaken and I can barely breathe, and to end up all sweaty so I need to shower and change again? I'm like: Fuck this, do I have to? Really?

And yet it's weird: most of the time when I go, I don't hate it all that much, and in fact, I often even enjoy my workout for many minutes at a time!

So what gives? Why can't my logical brain put these two facts together, conclude that reluctance is a shitty predictor of future reality, and skip all the melodrama?

Apparently there's a stubborn, archaic part of my brain that is still trying to "protect" me from the possible unpleasantness of physical exertion.

Get Back on That Couch, Crabby!
image: wikimedia

Yep, I think it's my inner cavewoman.

She can't help it though, she's wired that way. Sure, she would motivate me very efficiently if I were starving and needed to climb a tree for fruit or catch a rabbit, or alternatively, to flee from something with fangs and claws contemplating me for dinner.

But she seems to believe that I need to conserve my energy for these rare circumstances, and should rest up whenever I can, and hang on tenaciously to my precious fat stores in case famine is looming. In particular, she wants me to stay the hell out of the gym.

"You're going to be miserable, Crabby," cavewoman warns, as she spies my workout clothing coming out of the drawer. She pumps out a huge dose of fear-and-loathing chemicals for good measure. "Don't do it, you'll be sorry!"

"Shut the hell up, you ignorant unevolved hominin" my modern brain says,  "it's not going to be that bad!"

And yet, deep within my twisted psyche, I believe her. If it were just the two of us, cavewoman would win every time.

But instead..

It's Inner Neurotic to the Rescue!

So what skills does this maladjusted motivational hero bring to the fight?

Illogical Reasoning!

My inner neurotic is completely looney tunes when it comes to cause and effect. It over-generalizes, catastrophizes, makes unjustified leaps.  "You MUST WORK OUT today Crabby, or you will immediately lose all your muscle tone, gain 100 lbs, become a lazy unmotivated loser, and your life will spiral downhill in such a shocking way you may wake up tomorrow morning in a trash dumpster with the smell of Cheetos and Thunderbird on your breath."

OK, so maybe some of these visualizations are unconscious. But I'm pretty sure they're in there, or else why would the "shoulds" and "musts" be so amazingly effective? There are all kinds of other "shoulds" I ignore with no problem!

Obsessive Overthinking!

My neurotic brain loves to plan, scheme, analyze, invent, hypothesize, experiment, tinker, refine, and of course narrate and opine and explain things to imaginary audiences. So a simple question like: what might be the optimum way to exercise today? I can keep my brain circuits firing for hours on that, before, during, and after the actual athletic endeavor.

(Just yesterday I developed a whole new running-in-the-park interval and functional fitness routine, specific to a particular section of Balboa Park. Which is interesting timing considering we are moving, leaving town tomorrow, and that was probably my last Balboa Park workout for the foreseeable future.)

Is it healthy to devote so much mental energy to something so trivial? No! But it adds a whole level of entertaining intellectual engagement that I believe may help keep me coming back for more exercise year after year, despite what cavewoman has to say about it.


When I'm in really good shape, I believe I look "better," according to the arbitrary aesthetics our superficial screwed up society currently endorses. I do know, intellectually, how stupid and shallow this source of motivation is.  And yet I'd be lying if I said it doesn't help me get my ass out the door and onto an elliptical machine.


I don't look forward to exercise but there are always chores and tasks and decisions that cause me more angst than working out does. Exercise is concrete, physical, and time-limited, and if I have some other obligation I'm avoiding, strapping on a heart rate monitor and filling up that water bottle start to seem a lot more appealing.

Guilt and Self-Flagellation!

To exercise or not is a lifestyle choice, not a moral dilemma. I am not a "better" person if I work out, or a "bad" person if I do something else instead.  My brain gets confused about this though.  (Again, with plenty of help from a superficial society).

The idea that I can somehow "buy" virtue by lifting a few weights or logging a few miles is preposterous. And yet I suspect this delusion helps me crank out a few more reps when I might otherwise quit.

Important Cautionary Note:  Beware Truly Self-Destructive Exercise Habits

I am blessed with a natural slothfulness that keeps me from every taking these neurotic tendencies too far. So I feel I can make light of them.

There is still debate among experts as to whether exercise addiction is truly a thing, in the sense of being a recognized psychopathology. But we've all seen people who are truly compulsive about their exercise behavior, and who have lost the ability to make rational decisions about when to exercise and when to stop. It often seems to accompany disordered eating behaviors such as anorexia and bulimia.

Exercising to the point where you endanger your health is no joke. If you are getting feedback from those around you that have an issue, don't dismiss it out of hand. You don't have to take their word for it, but consider getting some professional, objective input about your behavior and its impact on your health.

OK, enough of the serious responsible shit.

Anyone else use ridiculous methods to motivate yourself sometimes, or are you guys all healthy and normal about getting exercise?


  1. Your timing, as always, is fabulous. I was just reading an article in the NYT about a study that showed people who meditate before going running have a better attitude about exercise.

    Meditating before running could change the brain in ways that are more beneficial for mental health than practicing either of those activities alone, according to an interesting study of a new treatment program for people with depression.

  2. Sometimes it's tough to motivate myself, sometimes it's not. I find week days easier than weekends, unless I can get my backside up and out of bed early. I find YouTube videos by CT Fletcher also help me - you should check him out if you aren't familiar! :)

  3. I am motivated to work out by the muscles. I have been lifting more weights lately and I have been seeing more and more muscle definition....... And I LIKE IT! I lifted a weight and I likeeeeddddd itttt - Ha! Sing that verse to the beat of Katy Perry's song kissed a girl, LOL !

  4. What's normal? There's no normal around here. If i don't make myself exercise because i know i have to, i simply wouldn't. The part of me that believes exercise is torture is alive and well and doesn't show any signs of going away soon.

  5. I do my best work when I am distracted and supervised. I try to throw myself out of the house before I have actually woken up (can't tell you how many times I have forgotten my bra, bathing suit or socks as a result). I finish dressing on the porch. I turn myself in for supervision once I get to the gym. Either my trainer, my friends or the class I am taking kicks my butt. It is just best to keep my brain out of it. If it gets talking, things are going to go badly.

  6. I have to push myself too. I work out twice a week with a trainer now. If I miss a few weeks, like when out of town, on vacation, I sure can tell. My strength level goes down really fast when I don't workout. As an (ahem) older lady, I really appreciate being strong.
    Like you, once I drag my sorry butt to the gym, I enjoy the workouts, sweat and all!

    Walking is what I need to do more of. Trouble is, I have a very bad knee. According to the doctor it is pretty much bone on bone osteoarthritis. It isn't bad enough for knee surgery but it hurts like hell to walk anymore. I am considering getting my courage up to go to the doc to get those steroid(?) shots in my knee again. That is SO painful though and only lasts a few months. But if I don't, it will be a lot harder to move the scale back down, like I currently would like to do.

    Gads the inner child can be a pain. "I don't wanna" is what she keeps saying. I just slap her silly and go anyway.

  7. I'm not much for exercising to the point where I can't breathe--or even sweating much--but thank you for the motivational idea of the gym. I've been thinking I should try to go back, now that my foot, with my new shoes, is better, and my shoulder has been not painful for weeks, but my days off are full of stuff, such as walking for an hour or more, thank you, new shoes. This day off I was thinking "Where shall I walk today? Oh, bother, the maples are blooming! I'll have to use the blasted exercise bike" (pollen season is why I bought the thing in the first place) and you remind me that the gym is Indoors. If my shoulder behaves itself I can lift some weights for the first time in months, and use the gym's reclining bike.

    Also, "meekrats"? Best typo ever!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. OK, it's worse than that Mary Anne--years ago I misread meerkats as meekrats and even once I realized my error, I still get it wrong half the time! Some strange wire crossed in my brain.

      (We also went to Iceland last summer and I kept calling it New Zealand. Not just once or twice, but dozens and dozens of times. The Lobster gave up correcting me because it had no impact at all. What the hell goes on in that cranium of mine?)

    2. But meekrats makes So Much Sense. And Iceland and New Zealand are both islands far from other shores....

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  8. I miss forced workouts - being a part of a hockey/volleyball team. Having someone else relying on me is definitely more motivating. My inner sloth is strong. :)

    Lately I'm turning a few personal disappointments into my motivation. Honestly? It's probably not the healthiest approach, but I also know it won't last forever so I'm okay with it. And it's a transition to my next approach: since I've lived here in the sticks without access to a gym a reasonable distance or a team to join, routine seems to be my best defense (offense?). Once I get into the habit or routine of whatever (either running or workout program ala T25) I find it gets easier every day. But those first few weeks are tough...

  9. My motivation for doing stretches is so I can move. My motivation for doing squats is so I can go for hikes in the mountains.
    That's as good as it gets around here.

    1. Not hurting is excellent motivation. I started doing yoga when I was thirty because I found myself getting stiff and I thought "Isn't this a little young???" Thirty-four years later I'm not stiff, although some joints are not as flexible as they used to be.
      Also, I walk because I like to walk, not because I want to exercise. It's more that I exercise so that I _can_ walk better and farther.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  10. My motivation is setting up to meet friends to run. If I had to go by myself, I'd find a million excuses to do it later...which would be never.

  11. Eek! No. Don't make me workout! Thanks for this post. It was spot on and just what I needed to hear :)

  12. Thanks all for your awesome comments! I love hearing how you guys manage (or don't) to motivate.

    So sorry for not getting a chance to reply to comments, we're on the road again, (currently in Sedona) but I DID manage to get my ass to the gym at 5am this morning for a HIIT workout, my LEAST favorite of all workouts. My inner neurotic convinced me that if I didn't do something especially hideous before getting into the car for many consecutive days, dire things would happen to me. Um, yay?

  13. I am ALL of the things at the bottom of the list and I seriously want to read that book about being neurotic...or did I write it? I do love to work out/train MOST of the time but, when I don't it's horrible. Luckily the psycho side of me won't miss more than a day...or two.

  14. I won't say that I look forward to a strenuous workout; I actually hate getting all sweaty. When I was younger it was all about trying to get skinny. I'd still like to be skinny, but semi-resigned to the fact that it won't happen. That said, I'm getting older and thinking about the fact that I still want to be able to do stuff I enjoy in the future, like walking outside, working in the garden, going on vacations and touring around...So I probably should try to maintain a certain level of fitness.

    Also, lifting weights makes me feel a little bit badass (even though I am actually a complete wimp). Less great at convincing myself to do cardio.

  15. I take LOADs of motivation to get in the gym. I'm good with food, well Monday to Friday! Gym wise, I love it when I'm in, it's just making the step to go.

  16. I'm sorry but I'm one of those annoying people who don't require motivation! Well I guess I do as it's my weight - if I don't exercise, I gain weight really easy.

  17. I love this piece! I'm usually in need of motivation and I can empathize with quite a lot of this post sometimes!

  18. This motivation technique is awesome. Thanks a ton. I loved reading it.
    plexus slim


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