People running over a bridge

How to motivate yourself to go out and exercise

I am a big advocate of managing anxiety through lifestyle design. Exercise, diet and social connections can all be powerful tools to reducing your anxiety, improving your mood and generally living a better life.

The problem is that it can often be very difficult to motivate yourself to go out and exercise. This is especially true now that winter has arrived in the northern hemisphere and most of us are facing cold, wet, dark days.

So how can we motivate ourselves to get out there? I faced this exact question last week when I was supposed to go do Parkrun. I had stayed up past midnight the night before and my baby daughter had had me up twice during the night. So when my alarm went off at 8am and I saw it was raining outside, I wondered whether I really needed to do do this run.

How did I manage it? A number of ways...

Utilising the power of habit

Before I talk about what I did that Saturday morning, I think it is worth noting that the whole reason I was having this conversation was the power of habit. I always go do Parkrun on a Saturday morning. That is my routine.

If it had been any other day, I would probably have instantly blown it off, saying "I can go another day". But because Parkrun is only on a Saturday, and that is when I always go running, the default behaviour was for me to get up and go. That was my automatic reaction and it was only my mind that was trying to de-rail the plan.

Understanding it was anxiety

Often, we do not want to go out because we think we will feel awful once we start exercising. However, the opposite is actually true. We feel like we do not want to go because our mood is low before exercising. Once we start exercising we will experience an uplift in mood, and therefore enjoy it. But that is the paradox: you only get the motivation you want when you have already got out there.

Using the "as if" principle

We often think that the causation chain goes: thoughts inspire feelings that inspire behaviours. But the work of William James suggests it is the other way round. Our behaviours trigger our feelings which trigger our thoughts.

Therefore, if we want to go for a run we should simply put our running gear on. By acting like we are going for a run, our thoughts and feelings will follow and the emotional resistance to going out and exercising will break down.

Bring it all together

What happened on that Saturday morning? I reminded myself that the reason I felt like not going was not because the run would be horrible but because my anxiety was causing low mood, and that once I got out there I would feel better.

This gave me the motivation to put my running gear on. Just to see how I would feel after I did.

Once I was dressed, I felt okay. I felt like I could face going for the run. I had gone through the process of identifying anxiety and low mood, using the strategies I had learnt to cope with it, and put them into practice to overcome them.

It was a sharp reminder that this stuff actually works!

Once I was outside, I felt great. In fact, I actually went for a longer run than I normally would.

How to apply this to your life

If you are struggling for motivation, consider how you can apply the following to your routine:

  • Make something a habit, so that doing it is the default
  • Understand that anxiety is a memory disorder: your mind will trick you into thinking things that are not true
  • Identify anxiety and low mood and remind yourself that this is the reason you do not feel motivated
  • Use the "as if" principle to break down emotional resistance

If you find you need help applying these techniques, or that you want to go through them in more detail and look at the evidence behind them, they are all covered in my book Technical Anxiety.

Remember that every time you successfully apply this, you will earn yourself a small victory, that will make you feel better and provide more motivation in the future. Building up these little wins is one of the keys to success.


Published 21 November 2016. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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