How to Maintain a Workout Program

Many clients ask me to help them establish and maintain a workout program. In my experience and in helping many clients through this desire, I have seen some common reasons why sustaining a workout program can be difficult. However, not to worry – solutions are there for you if you have a better understanding of what the potential issues are!

Here are some common ones:

Not aligning exercise to their beliefs, values, and passions.

The secret to sustaining anything in life is to make sure it aligns with your beliefs, values, and passions. If working out does not, or it’s not clear that it does, then you’ll always prioritize other things over going to exercise. It will be the easiest thing to blow off in your schedule. And that’s because other things align more with your beliefs, values, and passions and therefore you naturally gravitate towards doing those things rather than working out.

How can a regular workout program align with your beliefs, values, and passions?

In a more extreme case, it can be a doctor’s visit whose diagnosis generates fear of future health conditions. It can be very motivating if a doctor tells you that your recent blood tests show you on the way to diabetes or heart disease.

However, it would be nice that we did not have alignments which produce fear!

If your passion is health and the vibrancy it brings, then sustaining workouts is easy.

If your passion is not so clearly health related – note that just saying you think that it would be a good idea to workout is usually *not* enough – then it can take some work. Reframing is a good way to recast working out as bringing value to another passion you have. How can you be there for your spouse and kids if you’re always tired and feeling bad about your physical condition? So staying healthy as a precursor or prerequisite to another passion can be a great way to begin sustaining workouts, and whatever reminders or motivators you can set to keep that alignment top of mind.

Choosing a method of exercise that you actually hate.

Many clients equate exercise to the usual suspects – running, Crossfit (or insert your favorite brand here), lifting weights, yoga class, or similar. Because exercise in their minds equals one of these, they pick one to try only to realize they stop going. After some exploration, they realize they actually don’t like that activity but somehow they think that in order to work out, they must pick one of these. And when they do, they really don’t like it and end up not going because they don’t like the activity itself.

Why choose a method of exercise that you hate? Why not instead choose something that you actually like doing?

The reality is that there is a *vast* number of ways to increase your health through some kind of exercise. It is definitely not limited to the set that you currently recognize. Movement can come in many forms. And so can increasing load to improve your fitness. And it doesn’t need to happen in a formal class, or cost thousands of dollars in technology or equipment.

For example, walking is a great exercise. It doesn’t require much equipment. You just go outside and start walking. And if you find that walking is getting easy for you, then how do you make it more challenging? Find a path with hills? Go into wilderness paths versus the road? Or bring a backpack and load it with something heavy, like some books – this is called “rucking” and is what soldiers do all day long to increase conditioning.

Or perhaps it just means something different. Maybe going to the gym to “lift weights” is boring to you. If it’s boring, change it up! Find out what it is you love and then try to match it up with some way to get regular movement out of it. Don’t be afraid to try out different things. Is it martial arts? A class in the same activity but different instructor? Is it yoga? Is it crawling? Is it a different kind of weight training? Do you like being outside versus always inside? Ask yourself the qualities of what it is you *do* like doing and then find a way to move that satisfies those qualities.

Starting out too fast or hard.

When clients start an exercise program, they often start out way too fast or hard for their body to handle. This is especially true for those who have had some substantial time away from exercise. There is this belief that their bodies should retain some significant percentage of their former fitness. That may be true in some cases, but for many it is not. And for those who are very unfamiliar with exercising regularly, this can be a discouraging even to the point of never returning, as their bodies are aching for days after.

If you are starting out, my one suggestion is to START OUT WAY SLOWER than you think you should. For example, I just hurt my knee and haven’t done a single bit of exercise for nearly 8 weeks now. Last week I just started up with a basic kettlebell routine (my tool and method of choice). Before I got hurt, my conditioning was such that I could do a certain level. However, now, having been detrained for 8 weeks now, I began super slow. I did literally basic movements and barely broke a sweat. I did acknowledge the feelings I had though which were very important. These were the fact that my heart rate jumped, and I could feel my nervous system was not fully awake to working with the kettlebells. So I did a pretty short workout of about 15 min and then took a day off. Then I did it again and took a day off. And then another day and day off. Finally after the 3rd day, I could feel that my body was adapting to this initial bit of stress. And then I added another round. Now the feelings changed again. And so on.

When we trained for triathlon, we would often come out of the off season with very little focused nor intense training. We would just go out and jog for about 10 min, or ride without serious intention for 20-30 min, just to wake the muscles and nervous system up. This would go on for a month before our real training plans started. We knew that if we came out of the gate building quickly, we would eventually flame out mid-season, and watch our performance drop right when our key races were coming up.

So start slower than you think you can, and notice all the change in sensations in your body as you dive in. Don’t go all out or else it may mean that you will discourage yourself from continuing!

Not acknowledging you are beginning something new.

Along with the previous issue, there is often this idea that someone has expertise instantly. This notion is dashed very quickly after trying a new activity, and then feeling like a failure after only one class. They quit after feeling way that they cannot actually do the exercise itself and fear looking foolish.

It’s hard being a student again. Or even awkward at something after not having done it for a while. Giving yourself self-compassion to get through the first few sessions to learn and get better at something, either a completely new skill or just a building of conditioning, will enable you to have more capacity to go back and maintain the exercise.

Having misconceptions about exercise.

When people think of exercise, they think of things like “no pain, no gain”, or the need to sweat, or the need to be sore, out of breath, etc. in order to feel like they did something.

This is completely untrue. It is however appropriate depending on what you’re trying to do and when. But generally it is not a good idea to keep a workout schedule that has you at high intensity every time and for long periods of time. It will eventually lead to burn out, if not injury, which are major deterrents to maintaining a workout schedule.

So find a great trainer or coach who can guide you as you and your body needs, and program your workouts correctly for you.

Not recognizing you need goals, or not having the right kind of goals.

There is a continuum of how people sustain workouts. On one end of the continuum, there are people who seemingly can go to their exercise classes regularly, weeks on end, and without a hitch. On the other end, there are those who have the big goal. That goal is to make it to the finish line of Ironman, or marathon, or look good for an event like a wedding. Once that goal is reached, then they stop going to exercise classes. The reached their goal, with exercise classes to get them there, and now they don’t need them any more. So they stop. In fact, they cannot go back to exercising *without* the big goal.

And then there are people in between the extremes. They are able to sustain workout programs regularly, having goals large and small, self generated or otherwise.

What kind of person are you? Do you need a big goal? Do you have any goals whatsoever beyond just the nebulous “I want to be healthy”?

If you need the big goal, then how might you find one that you can work on? What might one of those be? And how would you continue to generate these big goals continuously so you always have one to work towards?

We talked about alignment with passions – could the goal be aligned with other life goals, like being there energetically for your family?

If your goal is vague, like “I want to be healthy”, then how can you make it less vague? Are there any goals you could create to aim for in the realm of something vague like healthy?

If you don’t have any goals whatsoever, then it can feel like you are just a robot going to the gym without purpose. So it is most often useful to be able to have some sort of goals to go for, versus nothing at all.

Not realizing that community is the real reason why you love to exercise.

Before the pandemic, many people who go workout in group classes. While they enjoyed the actual activity itself, they also enjoyed the camaraderie and socialization of the people who attended. When the pandemic closed down group classes, so too was the socialization removed as well. Then, when people went back to exercising, they didn’t enjoy it because many times it was still a solitary activity, especially with gyms and their classes still being closed or restricted, or just the fear of being in close proximity of a group again. Not acknowledging the importance of the social aspect, they quickly were discouraged from going to workout in a solitary fashion.

This can be either or both of a support function or the socializing itself. In the support case, the person usually enjoys the activity but just requires someone else there to keep them going. In the socializing case, it is actually less important what the activity is, but that there is a group of people they resonate with and enjoy seeing regularly.

Which one are you? Can you go to the gym by yourself, or do you need to have people you enjoy being with surrounding you? If it’s the latter, then you might ask yourself if the activity is truly what you enjoy or does it not matter so much. If you found a yoga class but don’t really resonate with the people or the teacher, then is it another yoga class to find, or just finding another group activity where you do resonate with the people and teacher?

Not recognizing and aligning with the positive feelings generated in your body and mind.

Depending on the activity chosen, and any elements that may raise intensity of effort, many people often focus on the soreness and aches of the activity, as well as the time and effort of getting ready and getting to a particular location. They succumb to these negative aspects which provides them with ample reason to quit.

However, in examining what feelings are generated within you, you might consider the positive ones generated. Yes, you could be sore after a workout, but how about after you are not sore and how you feel then? How about the feelings of accomplishment both large and small, ranging from hitting the finish line of Ironman to just being able to hold a yoga pose for 30 seconds more?

What else are you able to do, that you could not before? How good does that feel? Lifting a bag of groceries without back pain? Walking a mile without panting? Being able to get on the ground and play all afternoon with your new toddler?

Remember also that while feelings can be negative, life is not without struggle. It’s ok to struggle! As long as you struggle and end up in a more positive place, it just means you worked hard and got better as a result!

Thus focusing on the positive aspects and not negative can be a powerful motivator to continue your workout program.

When you read those common themes above, what resonates with your situation? What if anything can you change to help you sustain your workout program in a more thoughtful and effective way?