Unmotivated to exercise? You’re not alone

Pam Moore

THE WASHINGTON POST – If your motivation to exercise during the pandemic is as elusive as flour and antibacterial wipes, that’s not surprising – and you’re not alone. “It’s totally fine and totally normal to have your motivation wane,” said Steve Magness, a Houston-based running coach who has seen athletes at all levels lose initiative as the pandemic wears on. Here’s why you may be feeling this way and what you can do about it.

“One of the best things to keep people motivated is staying in a routine. You take that away, you throw it for a loop, and it’s really hard to establish new routines,” said Magness, author of Peak Performance. “All of a sudden, our offices and our homes have become the same thing.”

Pre-pandemic, it might have been second nature to hit the gym en route to or from the office. Now, if you work from home, and particularly if you’re a parent, the pull toward work or family can easily derail you from your workout.

Meanwhile, the competitions that provide a “carrot” for many athletes have been cancelled or are up in the air. “According to research, people quit when they have no goal,” Magness said.

Jennifer Harrison, a Chicago-area triathlon coach who describes her clientele as “Type A,” said even they are floundering as race directors announce cancellations.

While the pandemic may have drained some of your desire to work out, it’s also the reason you shouldn’t ditch your routine. “Nothing is more important right now than everyone’s health,” Harrison said.

Julie Emmerman, a Boulder, Colorado, sports psychologist, said we need to take responsibility for our own physical and emotional well-being, and “exercise is one of the best portals to do that”.

One of the many benefits of exercise is that it keeps our immune system functioning optimally. Emmerman said more is not necessarily better; working out too intensely or for too long may increase your risk of getting sick.

Exercise is also an excellent tool for stress management. For many of Harrison’s clients, it provides an important outlet. She coaches an infectious-disease doctor who hops on her treadmill for 30 minutes at 10pm to decompress after work.

Front-line workers aren’t the only ones feeling pressure; adapting to a virtual work environment comes with its own challenges. “It is stressful sitting at your screen all day and having all these meetings and having zero (in-person) communication,” Magness said. “We’ve shifted to being an indoor society, on screens. Especially now, (exercise) is a nice relief.”

Emmerman suggests going outside, if possible: “Nature is a wonderful equaliser to all the stressors.” And while it won’t help to worry about the future, maintaining a base level of fitness will help prepare you for it.

“You want to set yourself up to be firing on as many cylinders as you can as things move forward,” Emmerman said.

But how do you get moving when the bed or couch beckon? Here are strategies for staying motivated.


First, don’t beat yourself up or attempt to power through if your drive is low right now. “Give yourself time to get through almost what I call the grieving moment,” Magness said. He said it’s important to allow yourself to “wallow” or do “whatever you need to do”.

Harrison agrees. She said if you can’t muster the energy to work out for a day or even a week, “Give yourself some grace.”

But that doesn’t mean throwing in the towel indefinitely. “At some point, you have to set some sort of expectation or set some sort of bar,” Magness said. “And that bar can be really low.” As a distance runner, he was running six to seven days a week with a focus on becoming “super fit for my next race” before the pandemic. Now, he’s focussing on staying happy, healthy and sufficiently fit to compete again when the opportunity arises. These days, he gives himself permission to walk instead of run.

Magness said staying home has been especially challenging for his clients with young children. Instead of struggling to squeeze in challenging workouts, they’re going for walks with their kids “and maybe doing a few random exercises” – which he said is absolutely fine.

Harrison said that “the most important thing is continuing to move,” even if it’s only a 20-minute walk.


With our lives upended, many of our pre-coronavirus fitness goals no longer make sense. If that’s your situation, select a new goal that accounts for your circumstances and priorities. The more meaningful your target, Magness said, the more committed you’ll be to it, so choose wisely.

Right now, he’s encouraging his athletes to focus on outcomes that are unrelated to performance. Before the coronavirus, his workouts served to prepare him for racing; now the goal is time to himself and a welcome escape from Zoom calls. “It provides this nice little anchor to the day,” he said.

Emmerman advises asking yourself what you can do to make yourself feel better as you select fitness goals right now. If, for example, you struggle with back pain, your goal could be to experience no more than two days per week of pain greater than three out of 10 on the pain scale. Achieving the goal might mean completing three 20-minute mat Pilates sessions per week with a YouTube instructor or engaging in yoga or a stretching routine for 15 minutes per day, if those activities tend to be helpful.


Once you select a goal, being accountable, even if only to yourself, can help you achieve it. Harrison suggests keeping a simple chart on your phone or your fridge.

Friends and family members can also help you stay on track. If you live in a part of the country where it’s allowed, Harrison suggests getting some fresh air with a friend. “Put a mask on and go for a walk with your best friend and laugh for 30 minutes,” she said.

You could also compete against or collaborate with others, whether it’s over Zoom, or in person with roommates or family.

Since the coronavirus took hold, Harrison has been offering free group challenges each month that are open to anyone; the goal is to accrue as many points as possible. May’s participants earn points for doing 15 minutes of yoga, completing a bike or run workout without music, or completing 15 minutes of dryland swim drills, to name a few.


If you’re feeling too tired to exercise, Emmerman suggests focussing not on how low you feel now but on how energised you’ll be when you’re done, or how you might feel if you skip it. “A body at rest wants to stay at rest, and a body in movement wants to stay moving,” she said. Changing clothes and starting can be the biggest hurdles.

The promise of a post-workout treat can also entice you to lace up your tennis shoes, Emmerman said. A reward might be a dessert or a meal you’ve been looking forward to or anything else you enjoy, such as a show, a hot bath or a scented candle.

Finally, it’s important to stay optimistic, Harrison said. Believing the future will bring races, events and workouts among friends is vital.