How do I get started?
Better weather, brighter evenings — non-exercising, TV-watching guilt can peak at this time of year. Many of us know we should be exercising more but we just can’t seem to motivate ourselves to do it.
“A lot of people are motivated to change but they can’t seem to bridge the gap between their intention and the actual doing of it,” says Suzanne McDonough, professor of health and rehabilitation at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI). The first step is to have a good think about what you want to get out of exercise, she says. “Do you want to be fitter for your holidays, do you want to be able to play with your kids?”
Someone telling you to do something is not going to motivate you to do it. “Be aware that you have a problem, recognize that you want to change it and think about what will happen if you don’t change it,” she says. “Some people will be motivated for their health, but the thing that motivates people probably is actually having some fun and connecting with people socially.”
How do I make it fun?
Getting off the sofa is hard. To motivate yourself to exercise, make it about something else. “For some people it’s about meeting others and for some it’s about getting some head space and being on your own,” says McDonough. Make a walking date with a friend or go solo and listen to your favorite podcast while doing a lap of the town or park.
But is walking enough?
Yes it is. If you are interested in your heart health, the speed at which you walk is probably quite important, says McDonough. “Studies show if you take a person’s favorite music and speed it up, it encourages them to walk faster. There are soundtracks you can download to encourage you to walk at a certain speed.” Walking can help lower back pain too. “It’s as effective as going for hands-on physio, we did a trial on that,” says McDonough.
Incremental gains can be motivating. A feeling of progress can add momentum. “One of the most powerful things you can do is to measure what you are doing,” says McDonough. Your phone, a wearable device or even a really cheap pedometer will do the trick. “Keep a little diary and write down your steps every day, that can really help,” she says. Just don’t ramp up too quickly. “The mistake a lot of people make is they try to do too much, too soon and they get all kinds of aches and pains and then they stop. Measure where you are, build a slow and steady increase in your steps and self-monitor as the weeks progress.”
But I’m too tired today
You’ll be too tired on lots of days, anticipate that. Make exercise as easy for yourself as possible, says McDonough. “If tiredness is going to be an issue in the evening then maybe you don’t wait until the evening to do your walk. Fit it in on your way to work or at lunchtime, don’t leave it until the evening time.” If evening time is your only slot just get yourself out the door. “Say to yourself, ‘I’ll just go out for 10 minutes’. Leave your trainers by the door. Arrange to meet a friend. It’s just about trying to get yourself out the door. Once you are out you are usually fine.”
Wait for the pay off
A release of happy chemicals, improved mood and better sleep are all happy byproducts of exercise, says McDonough. “There is some really nice research about walking before midday — going out into the sunlight resets your circadian rhythm and you will actually sleep better,” she says. If you fall off the wagon for a week, get back on. “Phone a friend and say, ‘I’ve had a bad week, I really need to get back out, can I meet you for a walk?’”