Need to exercise. Low motivation. Low willpower. Ideas?
April 25, 2014 1:06 PM   Subscribe

What are some good ways to get into a modest exercise routine when you know that you lack motivation and willpower and will likely want to quit after one day? Anything from a lifehacker-y website/app/bracelet gadget that somehow guilts/encourages/blackmails you, to a person who shows up at your apartment and drags you to the gym. I live alone in Manhattan. I suffer from depression - I see a therapist and I take medication (one of the major side effects of the medication is weight gain, unfortunately). I'm not really looking for mental tricks to GET willpower - I've read posts about this - I'm looking for ways to exercise given the fact that I have very little willpower.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I think I mentioned this in the last post along these lines, but don't get hung up on the concept of "willpower" existing. It's a descriptor, not an attribute. If you find a way to get out of bed and work out, you will have demonstrated willpower.

As far as how-to, I'd say remove as many obstacles as possible.

Don't like the gym, or it's far? Just use the local park and do body resistance or run.

Get hung up putting on your shoes and getting all your stuff together? Get it together the night before or even sleep in your workout clothes. Make it so you can literally roll out of bed and go without having to stop to think or do anything.

Can't make it one day? Don't beat yourself up. Try again tomorrow. That's all any of us can do
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:09 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you register for a class of some kind, will you make it to the first session? I'm not always great in the willpower department, but if I can manage to sign up for something or turn up to the first few classes of something that doesn't require signing up, I'll keep going, especially if I've had to pay for it.
posted by hoyland at 1:11 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Go for a brisk walk every day until it becomes habit. Make yourself put on your walking clothes at the same time every day whether or not you go. You'll usually go if you put on the clothes.

Once that's a habit, you've proved that you can follow a routine. Keep at it with new habits.

Someone recently recommended The 7 Secrets of the Proliflic in a question and I'm really enjoying it. It removes the demonizing and self-destructive feelings that you "lack willpower", etc.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:13 PM on April 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

If money is a motivator for you: I've found that registering for a race can do wonders, if you're at all interested in running- actually paying the $35 or what not and knowing that on X date you'll be running 3.1 miles or you've essentially thrown your money away can be a good motivator, at least for me. There are also some apps that will charge you money if you don't go to the gym on a set schedule.
posted by damayanti at 1:14 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Get a bike. I hate exercising for no results. I played competetive sport for years and my body finally caused me to hang up my boots.

I now cycle at least 50miles a week with no problems at all. It gets me almost everywhere I want to go and keeps me fit. Most companies will offer tax breaks for cyclists too.
posted by the_epicurean at 1:15 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hate exercise. I have to force myself to get on my elliptical, but I look forward to biking and tennis, because they are fun. I can't stay on my elliptical more than 20 minutes most times. But I can bike and play tennis for hours.

Find something active that is fun.
posted by The Deej at 1:16 PM on April 25, 2014

Walking - very good. I suggest you take the attitude that it does not really matter how far or how fast you go; what matters is that you go. You don't need special clothes, except for some comfortable shoes. As for motivation, it will quite possibly help you become less depressed.
posted by thelonius at 1:20 PM on April 25, 2014

What helped me was getting a fancy pedometer (I have a Fitbit One). Because it tracks my steps all day, I want to walk more. Walking is exercise - obviously not as intense as going to the gym but it adds up. I have lost 30 pounds since I got mine - all from walking a lot more and eating slightly less, with no other exercise. I live in a city too (London) and I have grown to really enjoy walking around it, finding interesting streets/areas, people watching, etc.

The Fitbit syncs with your smartphone so you can monitor your stepping stats, floors climbed, and even sleeping patterns. It's really pretty nifty.
posted by peanut butter milkshake at 1:20 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to find something you enjoy doing, just for the sake of doing it. NOT because "exercise is good for you" or because "I need to not get fat" or anything like that. Pure and simple, you will only be successful at exercising if you find some form that is enjoyable to you. Then you will do it because you want to, not because you have to.

Now, the tricky part is finding something you enjoy. Don't limit yourself to the typical gym experience filled with free weights and treadmills. There's all kinds of crazy new ways to exercise these days. Try Crossfit. Try rock climbing. Try barre. Try biking. Try interpretative dance. Try prancercise. Whatever! If you can, cut back on something else in your budget so you can spend a bit more on exploring different types of exercise that may not be offered at a traditional cheap big-box gym.

Also, personally as someone on anti-depressants and HBC I have never found exercise to be enough for me to avoid the weight gain side effects of those drugs - the only thing that has helped me there is a strict diet, I am sad to say. When I did exercise solely for the purpose of losing weight, I gave up after not seeing the weight go away. When I started doing exercise because I found something that made me feel good, I stuck with it.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:21 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Keep trying new things until you find something that makes you feel even a little bit better when you're done than when you started. I suck at running, but aggressive cardio intervals make my brain work better and I get at least a good two hours of serious euphoria afterwards from what they call the runner's high. Low-intensity stuff doesn't do it; I will not walk regularly no matter how I bribe myself. But if I go and work hard, I feel good, so I go back to feel good. But maybe that's not your thing. Maybe you'd enjoy a gentler workout where you can listen to an audiobook. Maybe you'd enjoy yoga with a relaxing soundtrack. Maybe you'd enjoy lifting. Keep trying things, don't worry at first with whether you aren't sticking to things well enough. Don't rule out anything until you've done it. I didn't think I could do this, but it's working for me right now. (Well, not right now, today I'm home with a sinus infection, but it says something that I, the one who was never in the least bit athletic, am so wishing I could get out there today and not die.)
posted by Sequence at 1:22 PM on April 25, 2014

If you have the money hire personable and upbeat personal trainer. There is nothing more motivating.
posted by fshgrl at 1:28 PM on April 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

The MetaFilter team at HealthMonth has helped me learn to build healthy habits. (Previously.)

Weight loss is way more about diet than exercise. I log everything I eat & drink in MyFitnessPal. (There’s even a MeFite Cheering Squad where you can find some friends.)
posted by editorgrrl at 1:35 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think this might require a different frame of mind. You seem to view exercise as the enemy,as a necessary evil. But your body was made to move, and moving it should feel good. Try not to view exercise as the fastest way to lose weight (it's not, really) but as something that you should enjoy and should make you feel good. Start at your own level and pace. Check out some beginner's classes in physical activities that seem interesting- yoga, zumba, water aerobics- these are examples of exercises that often can accommodate anyone and many people have fun doing. I think in the modern-day, Western world, people have an idea that exercise must mean pushing yourself to the limit and sweating through your shirt in order to be effective, but actually in that way you can injure yourself, burn out, or get dehydrated. Some people have lots of energy to burn, but moderate exercise doing something we enjoy, along with a healthy diet, is enough to stay healthy for most people. So my advice is to looks at it as something to enjoy, to give yourself pleasure, and not a chore or torturous activity. In that way, the "will power" discussion may not enter into it at all.
posted by bearette at 1:52 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some things that have worked for me (most involve bringing someone/something else into the accountability loop in some way):

1. I have used the gympact app linked to above and find that it is pretty helpful at keeping me from falling off the exercise bandwagon completely.
2. I've had success with the MetaFilter team on HealthMonth when I'm not in really low points (when I'm feeling really low, though, I just start feeling like a failure when I don't make my goals and then I avoid the site)
3. Setting exercise "dates" with friends
4. Setting specific weekly goals with my therapist and checking in each week (love my therapist! don't want to let her down! if I do, she keeps me from wallowing! and then troubleshoots what went wrong!)
5. Joining a class
posted by drlith at 1:56 PM on April 25, 2014

I agree with joan_holloway: look to enjoy the activity itself, not the app or the tracker. What I'd add is:

The only goal for today's exercise is to still be willing and able to exercise tomorrow.

Don't overdo it.
Don't get injured.
If having fun with it is too much to ask, at least don't make yourself miserable with it.
Don't pay attention to whether your personal health numbers budge.
Don't count how many reps or minutes or miles or calories.

Just do something until you break a sweat, cool down, and stop while you're still willing to do it again the next day.

If you notice that you're somehow "not doing as well" at whatever it is, like you want to quit running before the couch-to-5K app says it's time to walk, or you miss several days in a row, just ask yourself: do I still want to exercise tomorrow? If so, you're golden! You are meeting your one and only goal!
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:11 PM on April 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Do you have a friend who will gently nag-text you about it? That's something I did with a friend of mine. "Good morning! Go to the gym!" and then I checked up on her. It seemed to work.
posted by gaspode at 2:19 PM on April 25, 2014

Make a list of reasons why you're exercising - optimize weight, get in shape, good for depression, etc.
Decide on some small rewards for exercise - can be anything tangible to mark success. Put up a calendar where you'll see it every day. Every day you exercise, put an X on that day. Every 7 Xs, put a star on the calendar and you get a small reward. Every 4 stars - times you get a small reward - give yourself a larger reward - a new app, a book you've been wanting, whatever, and circle the date.

Seeing the Xs, *s and circles on the calendar is motivating. Rewards are motivating.

Adding music or a podcast to exercise also really helps me.
posted by theora55 at 2:20 PM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Since you live in Manhattan, I'm not sure you'll have space for this, but I bought myself a recumbent exercise bike, and the thing is, I've realized I can read books while I'm using it. So now instead of having to motivate myself to exercise for half an hour I tell myself I'm going to read a book for half an hour. While exercising.
posted by BlueJae at 2:59 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

What has worked for me is audiobooks. I have gone from zero exercise to walking 60-90 minutes everyday, by listening to audiobooks. I look forward to my walk, its an hour of me-time where i dont really think or worry about things, just wander around and listen to books I enjoy.
posted by lrobertjones at 3:14 PM on April 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are lots of good ideas in this thread:

-- reward yourself for exercising (walk the treadmill while watching The Walking Dead)
-- making it part of a routine (get off the bus ten blocks early and walk the last mile to the office)
-- making sure exercise is fun and appealing of itself (a really fun dance class)
-- hooking up with an exercise buddy so you feel obligated to do it (I meet my sister three times/week to run, it's our sister-time and our mutual bitch-about-work time)
-- using one of the motivational/tracking apps (Six Apart's The Walk, or MyFitnessPal, or RunKeeper)

In addition to running with my sister, I also use the Zombies, Run! app, which encourages me to run more often because I want to find out what happens next with the story. When I have a really good audiobook I'm really into, I walk the dog a lot more frequently, I've noticed.

Exercise doesn't have to be boring and awful. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but after a while you discover that having exercised is one of the best feelings around. It really helps my state of mind. And after doing it for a while, you do feel better: stronger, fitter, able to go farther. It feels great.
posted by suelac at 3:20 PM on April 25, 2014

When I was starting and trying to get into the habit (running, mostly), I used to just admit to myself that I didn't want to do it and it was going to be hard and that was okay. Stuff that helped me out was: putting on workout gear and saying I would just give it a shot at least. Just get out the door and see. Also, spending some money on cute workout gear because I'm awfully picky about clothes. I used to have a few cheapo things and I'd put them on and feel like a schlub who was embarrassed to be seen in something so unflattering and that was not helpful at all. So I bought a few pricier things that looked good and performed well and didn't make me feel ugly/gross. The RunKeeper app because I'm still not that good at running and yet I'll look at it and go, well, six months ago I was WAY slower, I am actually making progress here. And because it tracks which days you exercise and for how long/far and can be set to give you encouraging reminders if you want.

The biggest motivation -- it would have been bigger if it hadn't crept up on me slowly, if I'd really believed from the start this could happen -- was that the tough cardio exercise had an amazingly positive effect on my well being, starting with the ability to get a good night's rest, improving my outlook on the world, feeling like I could make changes. I struggled with depression for a very long time and none of the antidepressants ever did me any good and stuff from therapy didn't really stick until the exercise got me into a state where I was finally capable of gradually changing thought patterns. And it's nice to have something that's a go-to for getting out of a rut on those days when you don't really have any particular plans and find that hours and hours have passed and you've just been sitting around being sad. Like sometimes on a dark, cold weekend day in fall or winter I'd just sit around the house watching TV and being sad and unmotivated for the entire day, and then in the evening I'd go for a run and it was like.. okay, I had a crappy day, but I actually got up at the end and did something for myself.
posted by citron at 3:36 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Where in Manhattan do you live, I wonder?
posted by prefpara at 3:52 PM on April 25, 2014

For tracking and motivation I've been using one of the photo a day apps. If I go for a run I take a picture of my shoes, if I do yoga a picture of my mat etc. If I don't exercise, no picture. I'm quite visual as a learner and it really shows a pattern to my activity/inactivity.

I started by just committing to wearing my fitbit for an entire week. No step goals necessarily, just wearing the tracker. That seemed to help. Buying a few new songs for every week I meet a goal helps too. I'm buying the cheesiest pop to run with and enjoying it!

Same as citron, now that I'm learning to run I acknowledge that I really don't want to go some days. But it's only 30-40 minutes and I put on my shoes and get out the door saying that I can walk the whole thing if I want. Usually I end up doing the workout once I've started.
posted by five_cents at 4:08 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it probably differs for everyone, but a few folks have already mentioned the Pact app, at the risk of sounding like a shill, it works for me.

I have to partly disagree with the folks who say "Find something you enjoy". The first 30 days of exercise is a major pain in the ass, it's not necessarily enjoyable and I need something to push me past my procrastination tendencies.

It turns out that the threat of penalties is a very good motivator for me, much better than the promise of a reward. (5$ is deducted from my bank account for every missed exercise, hasn't happened once.)

The cool thing is, it's been upwards of 3 months where I have faithfully gone 3 times a week for 30 minutes and now it *is* enjoyable and I am getting the rewards: lost weight, more energy etc.
posted by jeremias at 4:08 PM on April 25, 2014

I enthusiastically recommend starting with a Tiny Habit.
posted by moira at 5:45 PM on April 25, 2014

Take a step by step approach. When you don't want to exercise, just set a goal of putting on your workout clothes and shoes. Tell yourself you will just get dressed, that's it. 99% of the time, that is enough for me to work out.

If you're still not feeling it, go to the next step. Say "I'm just going to go down to the gym. I don't have to work out, I'm just going to go there. If I don't want to work out, I'll leave." Or, if you're a runner say "I will only walk today, that's it. I'm not motivated to run but I'll walk." Again, usually as soon as you're dressed and out of the house, you'll get it done.

If you work out at home with a DVD/workout, do the same thing with the clothes and then say "I'll just watch the DVD today." Press play and you'll find yourself getting up and actually doing it without thinking too much about it.

But yeah, trick yourself. It's EASY to get dressed and put your shoes on, make that your only goal and the rest should follow.
posted by katypickle at 5:51 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nothing demands walking like a dog. If you can't have one where you live, you can borrow dogs from friends, from the shelter (they often need dog walkers).
posted by Jesse the K at 5:52 PM on April 25, 2014

This is similar to other answers, but foursquare helps me out a lot. If I don't go to the gym, it will guilt me the next time I check in ('Your first time here in 3 weeks!'). It also gives affirmation when you go often. Plus a couple of girlfriends and I keep tabs on each other's gym visits.

One tip that I got from AskMe is to pack expensive very nice shower supplies, for gym use only. I don't go to gym, I don't get to use lotion/soap/shampoo that's way nicer than my everyday stuff.
posted by Fig at 6:26 PM on April 25, 2014

Seconding riding a bike. It gets me where I need to go, gets me exercise, and helps break my cycle of thought. Especially when I have a day I just want to lie in bed, my bike is great because it gives me a reasonable chance to make it to meetings or events on time.
Its a little thing to incorporate, but I've taken the approach to do every little counts.

Also, I try to do 10 pushups/squats every time I go to the bathroom. Again, small amount of activity but spread out.
posted by troytroy at 6:32 PM on April 25, 2014

It sounds like you need to find a kind of exercise you actually enjoy and were going to want to do. For me, it did wonders to do a Couch to 5k program. At the beginning it is very, very gentle and I think it shifted my notion of running from thing that I hate doing and makes me physically miserable, to thing I enjoy that gets me a little high.

I am depressive and in favor of forms of exercise that get you outside enjoying the scenery (vitamin D).
posted by mermily at 6:43 PM on April 25, 2014

I just downloaded MapMyWalk for my iPhone (just looked and it's on Android too). I started on Wednesday. I post my walk to Facebook. Just getting encouragement from my friends has helped.

I really didn't want to go today. It was cold and drizzling. Plus I hurt (Fibromyalgia and nasty weather makes me a sore girl). But I got a message from a friend and that motivated me enough to at least get my clothes on and head outside. I ended up doing better than yesterday.

This is my long winded way of saying social support helps. So if you want to use me as a buddy, memail me.
posted by kathrynm at 6:53 PM on April 25, 2014

I think the most helpful thing for me is to remember that doing some exercise is better than doing no exercise. Doing a few pushups, going for a walk or dancing to a couple of songs in your own home regularly is better than doing a whole big thing, overdoing it, getting discouraged and never doing it again.

It's also important for me to remember that I can try things without having to do them forever if they're not for me - otherwise I stay forever in a research and deciding pattern and never even try.

A few months ago I signed up for a six week basic yoga class. Six weeks is perfect for me - it's enough commitment that I feel like I need to go to get my money's worth, but not so much that I bristle at being locked in. And then I really enjoyed it! It also helped that I was doing it with a friend, and afterwards we'd go for breakfast. It became a really nice part of my week. My yoga place offers specific 'Yoga for Anxiety and Depression' classes, so something like that might be a good place to start.

I've also found wearing a fitbit to be enormously motivating. I'll walk all sorts of places if I know I'm getting points for it.
posted by escapepod at 10:27 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try Fitocracy for a game-orientated approach.

Write a large cheque, I mean a sum that will hurt, to a cause you DESPISE. Give it to a trusted friend to deposit 12 weeks from now unless you can demonstrate regular exercise has taken place.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:48 AM on April 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Start simple. Walk. You can build off of this. But walking requires little to no advance planning and it's exercise. Set yourself a goal - make it somewhere that you'll feel a little accomplishment but give yourself some room with it in case you get busy. For me, my goal is 12 miles a week. That's not a bad number and I can reach it without too much problem. That's 624 miles a year. Usually I have no problem reaching 12 and I do more, but some weeks (like this week) I've just barely had enough time to do that. (That's what I mean by giving yourself some room in case you get busy.) So far this year I've walked and hiked about 250 miles.

Another thing - whether it's hiking or whatever other exercise activity that catches your fancy, head over to and find a group for that interest, which hopefully shouldn't be a problem in your area. You get to get out and meet people, plus signing up for a meetup gives you somewhere to be at a particular time. I found this to be a huge help to get me to overcome that mental block I had.
posted by azpenguin at 8:00 AM on April 26, 2014

Find something you like. Try out a zillion things.

What finally clicked for me? Playing Ingress. Only available for Android for now, but also completely free. It can involve a ton of walking, jogging, and/or biking, but the time goes fast because it's an actual video game.
posted by spinifex23 at 8:30 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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