5 steps to motivation
Physical activity can offer benefits for everyone, at any stage of life. Regular exercise offers numerous physiological benefits: reducing the risk of lifestyle diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, osteoporosis and dementia. Being active can also regulate cholesterol and blood pressure, help reduce stress and depression, increase self-esteem and assist in the maintenance of a healthy bodyweight.
Recent studies conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the New Zealand Ministry of Health reveal that 62 per cent of the adult Australian population and 62.7 per cent of the adult New Zealand population are considered overweight or obese, with 70 per cent of Australians and 52.1 per cent of New Zealanders classified as sedentary or failing to participate in adequate levels of physical activity. An active lifestyle is a key component in achieving physiological, psychological, social, emotional and mental wellbeing and improving overall quality of life.
It has happened to all of us at one time or another. You join a local gym with the intention to go three times a week; you make a New Year’s Resolution or enter a fun-run with the hope it will motivate you to get fit. Then life happens. You are busier than ever with your career, social life and family and are finding it difficult to build the motivation to start and maintain an exercise regime.
Finding the time to exercise is not easy, particularly when you have children. Parents often feel they can’t justify spending time away from their kids to exercise and, as a result, push their own needs aside. It is important for you to recognise that time spent exercising does not make you a bad or neglectful parent but may result in a calmer, happier and more relaxed you when you return home.
In addition, you will be setting a positive example for your children with studies showing that children of active parents are 5.8 times more likely to engage in physical activity. This is a crucial concept as childhood obesity levels continue to grow. Time spent on your fitness, away from your kids now, will mean you will be around longer to spend time with them in the future.
Whether you’re a single parent, both you and your partner have hectic work schedules or you are always busy with the kids and other commitments, exercise can be a part of your life. Walk or bike to work, look up gyms in your area and find one with a crèche, exercise with your kids or work out while they are at school. Often, a lack of time is our justification for being unable to exercise when, really, it’s just an excuse. You will never find the time; you must make the time and to do this you need motivation.
The age issue
“We do not stop exercising because we grow old — we grow old because we stop exercising.” Dr Kenneth Cooper
As we age, we accept that our physical activity levels decrease as life becomes busier. As a child, you spent hours running around and playing outdoor games. Teenage life saw you allocating a little less time for being active and more time socialising, working or at school. Adulthood brought you more responsibility, longer working hours and less time to socialise, with the minimal leisure time you do have spent “switching off”, often in front of the television or engaging in some other type of sedentary pastime.
Older adults often avoid physical activity altogether due to perceptions of inability, feeling it could be dangerous, and lack of awareness of its importance. This trend is alarming, to say the least. As you age, exercise becomes more important than ever and the benefits can literally be life saving.
As mentioned earlier, regular physical activity plays a vital role in the prevention of chronic illness. You reach peak bone mass between the ages of 18 and 20, after which, weight-bearing exercise and adequate vitamin and mineral intake are necessary to prevent osteoarthritis, osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Participating in an exercise program can also reduce the risk of suffering from some types of cancer by up to 50 per cent (without even considering nutritional intake) and reduce the likelihood of becoming a type 2 diabetic or having cardiovascular disease.
You can see that exercise becomes increasingly necessary as you age but most of us exercise less and less through the lifespan. Why is this? We struggle to overcome the obstacles that stand between us and the fit, strong, healthy individuals we feel we will never become. It is lack of sustained motivation that sees us stuck in this rut.
Five steps to motivation
There are five key stages that must be addressed in order to find and maintain motivation. These steps can be used to motivate you towards any goals you have, not just those related to health and fitness.
Stage 1: Reality check
This first stage is where you must take a step back and take a long, hard look at where you are at. It’s easy to get distracted with work, family and life’s ups and downs while, slowly but surely, that number on the scales creeps up along with your cholesterol and blood pressure. We often don’t notice these things until it’s too late and we’re at the doctor’s surgery discussing the damage we’ve done to our bodies. Don’t wait for it to get to that point — evaluate your health and lifestyle now.
Be realistic and honest with yourself and create a list of health-related factors in your life that are just not good enough. After all, it’s your only body and your only life, so make it count! Establish your priorities. It is all well and good to say you will exercise each day in your lunch break but, if finishing extra work and socialising with your colleagues is more important to you, it simply will not happen. Likewise, if you absolutely love spending Sunday afternoons reading stories to your kids, Sunday afternoon is not a suitable time to schedule exercise because you will be setting yourself up to fail before you begin.
Once you have a brutally honest awareness of your current health and lifestyle situation and have evaluated your priorities, you are ready to move on to the second stage.
Stage 2: Goal setting
It is no secret that goal setting is an essential step in the path to achieving success — just ask any successful individual. It is now time to set goals that are specific, measureable, attainable, realistic and challenging.
Goals need to be specific. For example, you are far more likely to succeed if you set a goal of losing 10kg rather than a goal to “lose some weight”. This also helps to keep the goals, and your progress towards them, measureable.
Goals must be realistic and attainable, yet challenging. If the goals you set are too difficult, failure is likely and motivation and commitment to your goal will disappear. If the goals are too easy, there will be little sense of achievement, and motivation and commitment will again disappear.
Establish a realistic timeframe in which to reach your goal. This timeframe will help you monitor your progress and adhere to your exercise program.
Set goals that will motivate you intrinsically as well as extrinsically. Most people are motivated extrinsically when they begin an exercise routine. These individuals want to lose weight, tone up or gain muscle and look better, despite not necessarily enjoying the exercise itself. Those who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to find satisfaction and a sense of achievement in feeling fitter, stronger and healthier and being capable of doing things they never thought possible. This type of motivation will usually lead to enjoyment of the exercise and has been linked to higher adherence to regular exercise than for those who are extrinsically motivated.
Failing to plan is planning to fail. Now that you know exactly what you want to change and where you want to be, it’s time to map the journey that will get you there. It is imperative that your plan is realistic and sustainable and that you avoid an all-or-nothing approach. If it’s not, you will sadly but undoubtedly fail. If you are a self-proclaimed couch potato who participates in absolutely no physical activity, it’s unrealistic to plan to exercise for 90 minutes a day, seven days a week right off the bat. This may work in the short run but it will be only a matter of time before the same obstacles from your past trip you up and your unrealistic planning will leave you ill-equipped to overcome them.
Goals must be broken up into smaller, more manageable goals that will be easier to tackle. So if your goal is to lose 10kg in 20 weeks, a smaller goal may be to have lost half a kilogram at each weekly weigh-in. This valuable skill will keep you on track by allowing you to measure your progress and to tweak your plan when needed.
Just as your goals need to be specific, so to does your action plan. Decide what time, what days and for how long you will be exercising and write it in a diary or planner. Make these scheduled sessions as non-negotiable as a business meeting or appointment so you will never miss a workout.
Expect the unexpected. You will need to have a back-up plan for situations that will arise and cause a barrier between you and your goal. If you are going away for work or for a holiday, plan ahead and book accommodation that offers fitness facilities or plan a hotel-room workout. If you know you often feel exhausted after work and may be in danger of crashing in front of the television rather than getting yourself to the gym, plan ahead and pack your gym gear each morning so you can go straight from work. I keep a skipping rope and a few sets of dumbbells at home so that on the rare occasion you don’t make it to the gym, you can still get a good workout — no excuses!
Keep a record. This will allow you to monitor your progress and will boost your confidence and motivation as you make improvements. It will also help you in making adjustments to your fitness program if you aren’t on track with your action plan and goals.
Stage 4: Build social support
Share your goals. Tell your family, friends and colleagues about your goals and your action plan. This creates accountability and reduces the risk of relapse into your old lifestyle. If you tell the people around you that you are going to lose 10kg in 20 weeks by completing a 60-minute workout at 6pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you are far more likely to adhere to this. The threat of appearing to lack integrity and determination if you slack off is a great motivational tool.
Surround yourself with positive people who believe in and inspire you. If those around you support your goals and lifestyle changes, they will be easier to maintain and you may even find you motivate them to join you. Spend time with people who have similar goals or are where you would like to be in regards to health and fitness. You are more likely to partake in physical activity if those around you do, as it will be seen as normal behaviour in your social circle.
Hire a professional. The job of a personal trainer is to motivate their clients while providing them with the knowledge and support to achieve their goals. If you have paid for a session with a personal trainer and are meeting them at a scheduled time, chances are you won’t want to let them down. Your trainer should conduct regular weigh-ins or fitness assessments (depending on your goal); knowing they will be checking your progress will drive you to work even harder.
Exercise with a buddy. The same principle as committing to training sessions with a personal trainer apply here: if you train with a buddy, you won’t want to stand them up. Training with a friend can also offer some healthy competition and support through the tough times.
Stage 5: Maintaining continued motivation
This can be the hard part: the novelty wears off, your results may be coming more slowly than at the start or you may have hit a plateau. Adhering to an exercise routine is hard work but the good news is, if you make it past six months, you are far more likely to keep it up in the long term and there are many techniques that can help you do this.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Take regular progress pictures to remind you of your success and to keep you working hard. When you reach your goal, it will be great to look back over them and they will serve as a reminder not to slip back into your old habits. Another great tip is to keep a photo of you from when you feel you looked your best. This can be more effective than using photos of celebrities or athletes as no two bodies are exactly the same and striving to look as you have before is more realistic than striving to look like someone else. If you still have clothing from the time when you looked your best and it no longer fits, or doesn’t look great, try it on once a month to monitor your progress.
Reward yourself for all your hard work. Treat yourself to a small gift when you reach each mini goal and something bigger when you reach your long-term goal. New workout gear can be a great reward and can help make training more enjoyable.
Set new goals. Continue to challenge yourself by setting new goals all the time. Be sure to follow all the necessary steps and to devise an action plan. Once you reach a physical goal, you may like to add in a performance-based goal, like running a half-marathon, squatting your bodyweight or being able to complete a set of pull-ups.
Exercise willpower and self-control. Both willpower and self-control are like muscles — the more you use them, the stronger they become. Once you accept this, you will be able to work on these areas and every little victory will increase your motivation. Do one positive thing each day that you don’t want to do. For example, if you never run for longer than 20 minutes, decide at the start of your workout that you will run for 23 minutes. You will soon see you are capable of so much more and “can’t” will no longer be a part of your vocabulary.
Now that you have your motivation sorted out, the rest is easy, right? Not quite. Here are some case studies that illustrate some common obstacles people face when endeavouring to exercise regularly and what they do to counter act them.
“It’s hard to find the time to exercise.”
(Allison, 19-year-old uni student who works part-time)
Allison sometimes struggles to juggle uni, work, social life and exercise, particularly during exams and when assignments are due. She plays a variety of sports with local clubs, combining social time with exercise, and pre-set training times mean she won’t skip a session. She also uses organisational skills and a motivational motto to help her make time for exercise. “I’m a very organised person and like to have my week planned in advance. I see when I’m free and use that time to get to the gym or do something active with my friends, like have a casual game of tennis or do the local seven-kilometre river walk near my house. I’m motivated by goals, which I like to write down and set on my weekly planner. I’m a strong believer that you are what you repeatedly do and one day your life will flash before your eyes, so you want it to be worth watching. I use that motto as motivation to get off the couch and keeping working hard towards my exercise goals!”
“Fitting in exercise can be difficult when you have kids.”
(Alina, 34-year-old mother of two boys and registered nurse)
Alina says that, although her sons motivate her to stay fit so she can keep up with them and set a good example, it can be hard to work her exercise routine around them. She finds it the most difficult when she or the boys are unwell and when she’s exhausted from being a busy mum and doing shift-work. To combat this, she includes as much incidental exercise in her day as possible. She walks or catches the train most of the time and takes her sons for a long walk twice a week, pushing their combined weight in a stroller. This allows her to spend quality time with the kids while remaining active. Most weeks, she also manages a one-hour cardio and weights gym session and a Pilates class and avoids “giving herself the guilts when she can’t make a session”.
“Balancing my fitness routine and social life isn’t easy.”
(Alex, 26-year-old full-time cabinetmaker and interior designer)
Alex finds it hard to get to the gym when he knows his friends are out doing something fun. He plans ahead for big social events by squeezing in an extra workout beforehand so he doesn’t miss out on his exercise or socialising. He says the hardest part is getting to the gym during summer holidays when everyone is off to the beach; so he wakes up a bit earlier and gets his workout done so he still gets to spend the day at the beach with friends. “If I go to the beach for the day and plan to train in the evening, something usually comes up and I don’t make it to the gym. To avoid this, I just get up an hour earlier and get it (his workout) out of the way.” The thing that stops him from skipping a workout is the knowledge of how much better he feels when he trains regularly.
Exercise or illness
Exercise is essential for everyone and, as Edward Stanley said, “Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” We all experience obstacles that make regular exercise a challenge. By building, developing and maintaining motivation, the journey to your fitness goals will be enjoyable, fulfilling and definitely achievable.
References available on request
Felicity Daley is a personal trainer at Gfitness Drummoyne who seeks to give her clients the knowledge, skills, motivation and support to achieve their goals and to reach their full potential.