How to trick yourself into doing exercise; advice for the inherently lazy

work harder

I’ve been pathologically lazy my entire life. Being somewhat short and chubby, I didn’t have very high athletic aspirations growing up. But eventually I got to the stage where I needed to do some exercise. Many people reach this stage but struggle to make it further. If you don’t already want to do more exercise go and look up all the studies about the mental and physical benefits. It’s actually doing the exercise that’s the tricky part.

Yet despite having no intention of getting hench, and certainly no discipline, I ended up accidentally making a ton of progress. It never gets easy, but it does get easier and it’s all worth it. There are also a few things you can do to make get started:

Make starting easy

The first thing I found was that I had to make doing exercise as easy as possible. I’d happily pay more for a gym that’s easier to get to, cos getting there is the hardest part of the workout. Anything you can do to smooth out the process of getting to the gym will help, work out when it is you make that decision to go home instead of to a workout, and see what you can do to tilt that decision the other way the next time it happens. You can even workout at home if you can’t drag yourself out the front door. As soon as you get warmed up you’ll want to keep going, or at least you will have done something.

Track progress

This is an annoying habit to get into, I didn’t bother for ages, but it’s absolutely essential. Just get a phone app and get on with it (strong is fantastic) or use a notebook if that works for you. It can take a bit of time to start seeing that six pack, but as soon as you start seeing your weights going up, you’ll want to keep doing more and more.

I was genuinely astonished at how quickly I got stronger once I started doing proper strength training. Which certainly gave me a hell of a lot more motivation.

Find what you enjoy

I’ve always been rather flexible in my training. On the one hand, a perfectly planned and executed training programme would get the fastest results, but on the other hand I’d never actually stick to it. I’d much rather stick to doing what I enjoy even if it’s not perfect. It makes getting to the gym so much easier, something is normally way better than nothing.

For years I combined road endurance cycling with power lifting, which are at completely opposite ends of the fitness spectrum. The basically cancel each other out. I did heavy squats because I liked squats (and I was relatively less shite at them than other lifts) which is why I went to the gym, even though this made me too heavy to be good at cycling. If I’d tried to force myself to do only the exercises that got the best results I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Andy by pure coincidence, this has lined me up perfectly for doing a bit of racing on the velodrome.

So do what makes you happy – unless the only thing that makes you happy is sitting on the couch. If you like running, go running, if you like yoga do yoga. You don’t have to enjoy every second of it all the time for it to motivate your training.

Be flexible

Again, that perfect programme won’t get you far if you can’t hack it after the first week. Instead of an all or nothing approach, give yourself some wiggle room. If you genuinely can’t face a workout on a given day, just turn up and do a bit less, or make sure you certainly do it the next day. Just make sure you do something so you don’t fall off the wagon completely.

Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect, or not training 8 times a week. When I started off training I was in such bad shape even a couple of badly executed workouts a week made noticeable progress.

Make it a habit

While I’d certainly recommend being flexible, make sure this isn’t at the expense of momentum. If you regularly get to the gym 2 or 3 times a week, for a couple of weeks, it will start feeling normal. Then getting to the gym isn’t anywhere near as hard (most of the time). The more you train, the quicker it will become habit. Doing something once a week isn’t quite enough to cause pavlovian conditioning in the short term so just stick with it long enough to become a part of your routine.

Educate yourself

The more you learn, the better your workouts will become. This means more progress, better results and in my experience, more motivation.

I found that I couldn’t follow advice until I fully understood why it worked. Even if, when you’re being honest, you know your training isn’t the best it could be it’s really hard to switch over to doing something completely different. Making small changes here and there, gradually working towards that dream training regime, can add up to make a big difference.

The other side effect of learning about fitness is that it might accidentally motivate you to get off your arse and do some training. Like a couple of fitness pages on Facebook, T-nation and RP Fitness are good. When stuff pops up have a read. It’ll do you more good than looking at cat videos.

Follow pro sport

Get some inspiration in your life! Whether it’s watching professional sport or following fitness models on Instagram this can really help. I started watching road cycling as a form of procrastination at uni. The Giro d’Italia provided 5 or so hours of entertainment a day in the run up to exams. The problem was, watching cycling made me want to go and ride my bike.

Style it out

“Athliesure” is now a mainstream lifestyle choice. This is a good thing as wearing sports kit is always a good option; it’s super practical and comfy. If you need to do some retail therapy, start seeking out independent sports and fitness brands, it’s likely to make you want to do some training. Investing in some good kit is always a good way to make working out that little bit more fun too.

Set a scary goal

This isn’t for everyone. At least not to start with. I spent several years just wanting to get a little bit better. But when I did finally sign up to an insane bike ride, it scared the shit out of me and I trained like never before. This goes hand in hand with tracking your progress to a certain degree, having a desire to improve is a kind of goal. Having the data to prove you’ve hit a goal is always a great motivation boost. But having a specific target to train for focuses you like nothing else.

Just don’t worry too much about body weight, if you build muscle it will go up, if you loose weight, you may be loosing muscle.

If you are ever undecided about whether or not you should do a workout, having a goal to train for can give you that deciding factor.

Find a friend

This was one of the best tricks I found early on. Especially if you live with someone you can train with. Once you’ve agreed to go to the gym with someone there’s no backing out. Then, once you get to the gym you’re probably going to push that little bit harder too. Team sports are great for this if that’s what you’re into.

Avoid bad habits

This is a good life rule in general. It’s even the basis of CBT, a real scientific therapy. But it’s not hard to find the things that you know will lead to taking steps backwards. I can’t allow myself to go food shopping when I’m hungry, I’ll inevitably have finished a whole pack of custard creams before I get home. Say no to that 5th pint the night before a weekend workout. Even better, say no to the first 4 too.

  • Philosophically speaking, I’m a hard determinist – we have no control over our actions which are caused by underlying biological and physical scientific laws. But you can still choose to avoid the situations where you know you won’t exercise self control. I’ve found that tweaking my routine and daily habits in some of these ways has meant that, instead of falling off the wagon, doing exercise gets easy enough that I actually do it. This then brings in the results that make me want to keep on going.

    See what you can do to increase the probability you’ll make it to that next workout.

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