Yes, You Can: Fitness Motivation Tips For Days When You Just Can’t Even

Struggling to find your fitness motivation? Experts share their advice for working out when you’d rather not.

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I chase after my kid all day, y’all. I get my professional work done while he’s sleeping. House and home? Ha! My chore list just seems to get longer every time I look at it, and yet somehow, I am supposed to also find the time to workout? Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s hard to tap that motivational well when all I want to do is eat clearance Valentine’s candy and take a nap, but according to one study, just two weeks of inactivity is enough to reduce muscle mass, slow your metabolism, and increase risk for certain diseases like type 2 diabetes. Yikes! Maybe you’re a new mom. Maybe you struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe you have long workdays. Maybe you’re juggling all three scenarios! If you struggle to find daily fitness motivation because you’ve got a zillion other things going on your life, here are expert tips that’ll encourage, empower, and motivate you to exercise on those days when you just can’t even.

Rise and shine! How to Find Your Morning Fitness Motivation

My cousin gets up at 4:00 every morning and runs five miles before she heads off to her job as pediatric dentist. I think she’s totally nuts. Why would you willingly leave your cozy bed to go running at zero dark thirty? It might not be my cup of tea, but studies have shown that working out in the morning does have its benefits. According to one study by Anne McTiernan at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, morning exercise like a brisk walk or light stretching improved overall sleep quality for participants. Those who exercised in the evening, on the other hand, reported no improvement in sleep habits. Researchers at Northwestern University have also shown people who got most of their vitamin D from early morning sunshine had lower BMIs than those who were exposed to sunlight later in the day. Exposure to early morning sun may help keep your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural clock) on track, helping you boost your metabolism and maintain a healthy weight. If you’re an early riser who loves to start the day with a quick yoga flow or a half-marathon training session, keep up the good work! If, like me, you struggle to get up in the morning, Cassy Velez, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor, says “I think the most integral thing that someone can do for themselves in order to ensure that they stay motivated over time and reach their goals is to set their goals properly from day one.”   Instead of focusing on results (like losing 10 pounds), Velez says that setting process-oriented goals can give you sustainable fitness motivation, even if you’d rather sleep in. Process-oriented goals are more achievable, Velez explains, because “there are so many external factors that we can’t control on the way to achieving a specific goal. … What you can control is the process and the actions you’re going to take. If you focus on the process, you’ll almost always hit the goal anyway because you’re taking the necessary steps to get there.” Want a good example of a process-oriented goal? How about committing to one fitness class or sweat sesh a week? Fit it into your established schedule and build a routine up around it. If you’re going to a 7 a.m. barre class Mondays before work, make yourself breakfast Sunday night and treat yourself to a coffee on the way into work. Want to swim for 45 minutes every Thursday before picking the kids up from school? Go early enough to blow dry your hair before leaving the gym and get a good spot in the carpool line. Rather than focusing on your waistline or shedding pounds, stick to your schedule and enjoy the transformations that come from committing to yourself.

One is the Loneliest Number: Where to Find Fitness Motivation When Your Gym Buddy Deserts You

I am not a person who likes to exercise alone. I need a buddy to encourage me and help distract me from the fact that I’m exercising. So, when I moved away from my BFF and CFM (Chief Fitness Motivator), I struggled to maintain my motivation to exercise. While I did miss catching up on the latest Bachelor drama with my bestie, what I missed most was the encouraging emotional support she provided during our workouts. I tried motivational workout apps, but it just wasn’t the same. If you’re struggling to find the inspiration  to workout alone, Janis Isaman, owner of Calgary-based My Body Couture, a private, one-on-one fitness studio, speaker, movement specialist, and nutrition coach, says that signing what’s called a “commitment contract” with yourself can be incredibly helpful. One study found that, just like smoking cessation and retirement savings, people respond with action when they sign contractual agreements,” says Isaman. “Not only that, but they can be encouraged to choose longer durations and higher commitment.” Commitment contracts can help you stick to a plan, especially if you’re struggling to motivate yourself to work out solo, because you’re obligated to complete the terms of the contract. I tried Isaman’s suggestion, and used this template to create a fitness motivation contract for myself. I printed it out and stuck it on the fridge, and now every time I see it, I’m reminded that I made a promise to myself to work out. So far, I haven’t skipped one solo workout. What’s more, I’m actually starting to enjoy it. Isaman’s last piece of advice? Contracts are a proven way to help meet your goal. Remember that these aren’t New Year’s resolutions, so take your time before you sign one. Learn about your own personal motivations, develop a tracking tool (there are paper and online journals available) and take the time to customize a truly usable and unique document that is as mentally as powerful as a contract you would sign for a living space, relationship, or employment situation!”

Working 9 to 5? Skip happy hour and head to the gym instead.

I know, I know. If your only free time to exercise is after work, it’s nearly impossible to find the motivation to go to the gym, when all you want to do is snuggle with your pupper, see what Princess Margaret is up to on The Crown, and call it a night. But research recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that sedentary behavior (like sitting at a desk all day for work) can lead to earlier mortality. I don’t know about you, but I have big plans to spend most of my retirement in one of those luxe cabanas on the water in Tahiti, so after reading this study, I started moving more during the day. If your eventual retirement isn’t enough of a fitness motivator, banishing negative self-talk may help you drum up the extra willpower  to hit the gym after work. Alexandra Allred, a member of the first U.S. women’s Olympic bobsled team and an adjunct professor of kinesiology at Navarro College, says that motivating self-talk is key for success not only in the gym, but in your work life as well. For years, I have talked to my own everyday fitness class participants about how they talk to themselves,” says Allred. How often do you find yourself saying things like, “If I weren’t so bad at my job, I wouldn’t have to stay late and skip the gym,” or “If I could just lose twenty pounds, I think everything would be better”? Most people view these as the proper motivational self-talk tools to lose weight, join a gym, push harder, et cetera,” says Allred. “In actuality, these are roadblocks. It sounds so basic, but when a person learns to talk to him or herself in more positive tones, there is a noted shift over time. Positive and proactive self-talk doesn’t happen overnight, so neither will the changes. Just as it takes time to properly lose weight, it takes time to learn how to do … what I call P and P self talk.” Allred recommends replacing your “if” statements with “I will” statements for fitness motivation. Start your workday by saying, “I will rock this presentation, and I will go to the gym today.” Repeat this statement as often as you need to, especially when you find yourself tempted to skip an after-work sweat session.

Fitness Motivation for When Your Mental Health is Suffering

Sometimes our lack of motivation to work out is rooted in our mental and emotional well-being. It’s no surprise that many people who struggle with  anxiety or depression struggle to prioritize exercise. While information from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that regular exercise can help elevate depressed moods and reduce anxiety, fitness motivation is the last thing on your mind when you’d rather get back in bed or feel anxious about (or even petrified of) engaging yourself physically, going outside the house, or putting yourself in social setting you’d rather not face. Unfortunately, mental health disorders often sneak up on us. Too often, you may not even realize you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, but according to a resource hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services, if you find yourself unable to get out of bed, losing interest in things you used to love, or feeling hopeless on a regular basis, you may be suffering from undiagnosed depression. First, know that you don’t have to suffer alone. Reach out to a professional, a friend, or a family member who you trust to support you in finding the help you need. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, stop what you’re doing and text or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst and author of the forthcoming textbook, The Making of a Psychoanalyst says, “It takes a lot of courage and experimentation to know what will and won’t work for you, and then you need the self-love to give yourself the gift of beauty and health. Once you do the deeper work on yourself, finding the courage and self-love to come up with a truly and deeply enjoyable program, executing it will not be very far behind.” Do try to incorporate exercise into your self-care plan—even if it’s really hard at first. Go for a short walk around the block, a swim at the local aquatic center, or a bike ride in the park. If you’d rather not be around others at a gym or community center, try hiking. Stanford researchers found walking in a natural area for 90 minutes “showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.” Not up for leaving the house? Unfurl your yoga mat and follow along with a yoga flow from the comfort of your living room.

Baby on Board: Postpartum Fitness Motivation

Even though you may desperately want to lose your baby fluff, all you’re really motivated to do is get some much needed  sleep whenever baby will allow it. But exercising isn’t just good for mom, it’s good for baby too. When my son was six weeks old, I was cleared to return to regular activities by my doctor,” says Julie Lohre, women’s fitness expert, IFBB fitness pro, certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist, and fitness magazine cover model and contributor. “Workout time become my own personal me time … something of a mental health break that allowed me to come back to my baby an hour later energized and re-focused.” Lohre says to tap into your fitness motivation post-baby, you first need to acknowledge that your health and fitness are not just important to you; your level of well-being will impact how well you can care for your baby. The first thing you need to do? Instead of using the scale as fitness motivation, throw it out! I’m serious. You just had a baby. Cut yourself some slack. While many people will tell you that nursing helps you drop the pounds faster, I found the opposite to be true. My body held onto every calorie because it required extra fuel to make the nutritious milk my little nugget needed. So don’t focus on your weight—focus on the fact that your body just grew and is literally creating food for another little human. Also, there’s nothing like treating yourself to a little new exercise gear to bump up your fitness motivation. When you have the right gear, like the right jogging stroller or sports bra for your new, milk-filled breasts, it can make all the difference. You might find that you actually love working out when your boobs aren’t flopping around like two bota bags. I know I did! Finally, to tap your fitness motivation post-baby, you first need to acknowledge that your health and fitness are a top priority. “The difference [working out after baby] made in my attitude was incredible,” says Lohre. “So often, I see new moms that feel as if they are losing their own identity.  By making fitness a priority, they can gain back a piece of themselves and be better moms for it.”

Katie Martin
Katie Raye Martin is a freelance writer, navy wife, new mom, and chocoholic. In addition to HealthyWay, she has contributed to NextGenMilSpouse, a blog for the millennial military spouse, and Pregnant Chicken, a pregnancy blog. Since welcoming her first son a few months ago, Katie has become a pregnancy expert and cloth diapering connoisseur. When she’s not writing (or changing diapers) Katie is training for her first half-marathon.