We all know that exercise is good for us so why aren’t we all super-fit already? Because no one can sustain their enthusiasm for exercise forever. No one. Even the best of us who manage to go through life and remain relatively fit have our low points, breaking points and the points when we feel like the whole world can burn for all we care.
We all have these days.

And this is where it happens – we lose our motivation. One low day or a week is perfectly normal and, arguably, even healthy. The problem with our low days is that, as we hide under our mental (or actual) blanket, we feel good. In contrast to the everyday struggle it feels ultimately better to simply do nothing. So getting back to what we remember as the discomfort and pain of training is hardly a cheerful prospect. It’s incredibly difficult to go back to feeling tired and sore all the time in the name of the greater good aka our health and fitness because all we have are the memories of feeling tired and sore.

Memories and associations are the key component here. That’s how our brain works – based on past experience we form associations and we feel either positive or negative about a particular event or activity. If we went out with some friends and we had a bad experience we will be reluctant to go out with them or go to the same place again. And if the experience continues to be negative, well, we might just stop going out altogether and stick to Netflix.

Our brains are reward driven. We eat a slice of cake and we feel good. There is an instant reward right there, consequences be damned. When it comes to exercise, though, there is just pain and soreness and then the memories of the pain and the soreness. There is but a promise of reward at a later date as it takes time to get fit and then even more work to stay that way. There are no guarantees just the possibility of getting fit and healthy if we work hard, somewhere down the road, perhaps. That’s why cake wins over a workout every time.

We can push, shame and force ourselves on a regular basis but no one can withstand continued misery forever. Everyone breaks eventually and then the cycle begins again. We force, we break, we start again – if we can bear it psychologically. One of the reasons we need a new diet or a new training system every single time (and every year there is one or even ten new ones to choose from) is because we haven’t formed those negative associations with the new shiny yet so we feel we can give it a shot hoping that this time it will be different. And every time it fails us because we continue to suffer and that suffering creates negative neural pathways in our brains making us more and more reluctant to repeat the experience.
So what can we do? We must form positive associations with exercise instead by using any and all tools at our disposal. If we feel good before, during and after exercise the reluctance to do it again becomes less and less over time. Eventually, we are able to sustain our fitness and that is the end goal.

Reduce the amount of pain

When we feel our motivation is slipping and we are losing any desire to exercise, we should reduce the amount of pain inflicted – even remove it completely. The moment we accumulate enough negative associations with exercise our self-preservation kicks in and our brain tries to keep us away from any further discomfort. It’s only natural to shy away from pain especially when it can be easily avoided. The way our brain sees it no more exercise means no more pain.
Remove the pain from the equation and the reluctance will lessen.

Combine exercise with things you enjoy

That’s why so many of us listen to music when we exercise. We feel good when we listen to music we like and it helps us get through harder patches during our training session. It can sometimes help take our mind off the pain completely.
Training with others, people whose company we enjoy, has a similar effect. We can partner up with friends or family or a group of people with similar interests and exercise together. That way we focus on the social aspect of training and not on the struggle.
Watching a TV show during circuit training can take our mind off the pain as well. It can be a good idea to save all favorite shows and only watch them during training. That way we will have something more than just discomfort to look forward to.
We don’t always need a distraction but it helps every now and then to create better memories and associations.

Use an instant reward system

It takes time to see results in the mirror. Health benefits of exercise go fairly unnoticed throughout life – we tend to notice when things go wrong with our body but we rarely pay attention to it when we feel fine. So there is no instant reward for exercise unless we add some artificially.
We can create badges or award ourselves stickers for completing workouts. Crossing out days in a calendar can also be incredibly satisfying as we get to measure our progress. We can get a jar and add a marble to it for each workout completed with a goal to fill it up by the end of the year. We must create a reward system that works for us, that’s instant, something we get on completion of our workouts to compensate for the pain.
Food can be a powerful motivator, too. We don’t have to reward ourselves with cake, that would be counterproductive, but we can schedule our training so our breakfast, lunch or dinner comes directly post-workout serving as a reward for our struggle. Eventually our brain connects the two and we form positive associations with the physical activity.