Winter is coming and the nights are dark and full of terrors.
Or at least the idea of exercising through winter makes me tremble in terror.
I live in Hobart, where it’s beautiful through autumn — and in winter, it can take your breath away.
It can also take your breath away as the frosty air slaps your face in the morning when you stumble outside and the appeal of an early morning run or walk can disappear like a snowflake on the breeze.
I spoke with two exercise experts for their tips on how to find and keep motivation to exercise when we really don’t want to.
Here’s what they said.
Exercise for internal reasons, not outward appearance
Cecilie Thørgersen-Ntoumani is a professor in the psychology of physical activity and health at Curtin University.
She says it’s common for people to take up exercise with the aim of losing weight or changing how their body looks.
“When we exercise for appearance reasons, it’s often to get social approval, so it’s more external type of motivation,” she says.
“But it’s not going to be the one that keeps you going in the longer term.”
Professor Thørgersen-Ntoumani says what keeps us motivated is having internal reasons to exercise.
Internal motivators can be things like enjoying playing a sport, valuing the health benefits from exercise or finding joy from the social side of being active.
For me, I find my back hurts less when I move more and walking among trees brings me a peace that my living room can’t replicate.
“There is no one size fits all,” says exercise physiologist Andrew Williams from the University of Tasmania.
Not only does this apply to active wear, it applies to reasons why we exercise. What motives me, might not motivate you.
Be real with your goals
Dr Williams says goal-setting can be motivating, but only if those goals are ones you can realistically reach.
If you’re not sure what’s achievable for you, getting help from someone like a personal trainer, exercise physiologist or other health professional can help.
And your goals don’t need to be big to be worth it.
Being able to walk to and from the shops without needing a rest is just as valid a goal as running a marathon.
Being accountable to others works, but not to a gym membership
Having an exercise buddy or joining a sport team can be a great motivator to stay active, as long as you like the people you do it with.
“Belonging to a group that you feel connected to, that you identify with … that can really help keep you going,” Professor Thørgersen-Ntoumani says.
“I think a lot of people engage in exercise for the social companionship, even going to the gym.”
Personally, I hate team sports and prefer doing things on my own.
But I do find using a fitness tracker with a weekly step goal helps to get me to go for that extra stroll on days I don’t really feel like it.
Dr Williams says there is some evidence that fitness trackers work for some people with motivation.
Unfortunately, having a financial commitment does not tend to translate to actual physical commitment when it comes to gym memberships.
“The fact you paid your subscription upfront might help in the short term, but it’s not going to keep you going,” Professor Thørgersen-Ntoumani says.
Making movement part of your everyday life
Finding spare time to exercise is hard all year round, but it can be extra tough when it’s dark before and after work hours. It’s important to make physical movement part of your everyday life through winter.
“Things like active commuting to work … walking to the local shops rather than taking the car and carrying your shopping bags back home, that’s really good and it has health benefits even in short bursts,” Professor Thørgersen-Ntoumani says.
Dr Williams suggests having backup plans to be active can help when you can’t rely on the weather, such as going indoor skating when it’s too wet to take kids bike-riding.
And if it’s possible, don’t wait til the end of the day to go for that walk.
“Exercising in the middle of the day might work better for people,” Dr Williams says.
That way you get extra benefits of sun exposure which can help with maintaining vitamin D levels which can combat things like Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Be kind to yourself
Dr Williams says it’s worth remembering that being physically active has a wide range of health benefits, such as improving your immune system and helping to maintain good mental health and you don’t need to spend hours at the gym get those benefits.
“From a health perspective, anything is better than nothing,” he says.
Professor Thørgersen-Ntoumani says it’s also important to ignore the myth of “no pain, no gain”.
“That’s a very damaging [myth] because that’s not what we want, we want to exercise at a level that’s not going to give us pain and that’s certainly going to give us benefits,” she says.
Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up if you have a lazy day here and there, says Professor Thørgersen-Ntoumani.
“We all experience lapses,” she says.
“We don’t get to [exercise] one day because we’re feeling really tired and we just want to sit down on the sofa. It’s OK to have those lapses … it’s not a big deal.”
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