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Overcoming Guilt to Boost Motivation and Enjoyment for Exercise

We know exercise is good for both our physical and mental health. Yet, despite new year’s resolutions, the latest exercise tech, and promising workout plans, only 15% of Canadians are getting their daily recommended level of activity. Motivation is one of the key barriers to developing and maintaining an active lifestyle.

For many, physical activity in childhood felt natural and effortless. From learning a new skill (i.e. riding a bike), to socializing (i.e. recess), improving mood (i.e. dancing), and following values (i.e. exploring nature), exercise was rarely the goal, but the by-product of an enjoyed activity. Overtime, societal influences have encouraged a different relationship with exercise. External pressures for winning, physical appearance, pleasing others, and improving health, have taken over as motivators for movement. The surrounding discourse has allowed room for guilt to play a dominant role in dictating our exercise-related thoughts and behaviours: “I need to loose weight”, “I'm not ready for the beach”, “I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of cake”. When these types of thoughts surround our routines, we either feel disappointed in ourselves when we don't exercise, or like we are punishing ourselves when we do. The result is an emotionally draining relationship with exercise that lays the groundwork for an uphill battle or avoidance altogether.

When it comes to keeping both our physical and mental wellness in tact, motivation and enjoyment come hand-in-hand. Here are some tips to help you develop an active lifestyle that is intrinsically motivated and guilt-free.

Set an Intention Before Your Session: Unlike long-term goals, intentions are aspirations you can connect to in the present moment. It allows you to gain a sense of focus, purpose, and accomplishment, during your session. Setting an intention can be as simple as getting out of the house, meeting up with a friend, or focusing on the experience without judgement. Other possible intentions include learning a new skill, relieving stress, connecting with your body, and boosting energy.

Challenge Your Thinking Traps: Thoughts before, during, and after, your workout can make a big impact. Examine the type of thoughts that come up for you and label them as either helpful or unhelpful to your efforts. Prepare yourself by coming up with positive messages to reframe your experience. A common mantra in exercise culture is “no pain no gain”, but even something like this can be unhelpful, because it promotes the myth that exercise must be miserable or difficult in order to add meaning and value to your life. This type of all-or-nothing thinking will only discourage you in the long-term. In reality, every effort is a contribution no matter how small.

Personalize Your Activities: Think about your personality and personal preferences when planning an activity. Do you want to be indoors or outdoors? Do you prefer slow or fast movements? Get creative by pairing your sessions with an enjoyable activity (i.e. podcasts, music, audiobooks, Netflix, discussions with friends). Lastly, consider your strengths when deciding what to do. We often feel better about ourselves when we can use the skills we already have.

Be Mindful: Distraction isn't always helpful. Things like watching the clock, worrying about work, or analyzing a previous conversation, can diminish mood and energy. Mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment without judgement. When you encounter barriers or notice your mind drift, ground yourself by focusing on one of the five senses that you find pleasurable in your environment (sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste). Examples include listening to pleasurable music, feeling your body, enjoying the scenery, and anchoring your breath.

Open Yourself to Immediate Rewards: While long-term goals can be helpful, they don't offer much in terms of immediate rewards. Instead of rushing out the door, incorporate time to cool down as a choice to end the session feeling good. Congratulate yourself. Lie down and relax. Stretch. Notice how good your muscles feel. Take pride in fulfilling your intention.

Store Positive Memories for the Future: Take note of aspects you liked about the session. Notice how you feel before the session to appreciate the effects you feel after. Low to moderate levels of exercise can reap immediate improvements on levels of stress, mood, energy, and concentration. High levels of exercise may have you feeling awful at first, but will bring the same benefits later in the day. If you don’t reap the benefits you desire, it may be a sign that you have done too much too soon. Take note of this to adjust your next session accordingly. Store your positive experiences as memories to use for motivation to get active in the future. You might be less inclined to exercise when you're feeling down, stressed, busy, or tired, but it may turn out to be exactly what you need!

Taking on a new habit can feel difficult at the beginning. Offer yourself patience as you work towards your aspirations, and trust that you can find a way to overcome the barriers. With some added self-compassion, you can go a long way. Best of luck, and most importantly, have fun!


Written by Victoria Sabo, PITC Therapist. Learn More about Victoria.

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