7 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Fitness Motivation

7 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Fitness Motivation

Most of us have learned to be on guard for that most common type of frenemy: the underminer. (You know, the one who says — in the words of John Mulaney — “Oh, I love how you just wear anything.”) But what about when the call comes from inside the house — that is, from inside your own head? It’s all too easy to undermine our own health by lapsing into patterns we might not even be aware of. We asked experts to tell us the most common things they see that screw with your ability to stay healthy.

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1. Sitting

best self after pandemic - woman at desk

Sitting is silently killing us! It’s the new smoking!

You might have seen those alarmist headlines, which might or might not be accurate. But the simple fact is that most of us aren’t moving enough — even before quarantines and lockdowns.

“In a very general sense, movement of any kind is good for us both mentally and physically,” says Jenni Tarma, a Yoga Medicine therapeutic specialist, CrossFit L1 trainer and RRCA endurance coach in Durham, North Carolina. “Most of our day-to-day habits tend towards the sedentary, so unless we make a conscious effort to integrate movement into our schedule, we’re missing out on opportunities to feel better.”

What to do instead

“If you work at a desk, setting an hourly timer to remind you to get up and move around or do a few easy stretches is a great place to start,” says Tarma. “Simple movements like cat and cow, or spinal twists — both of which can be done standing or even seated — will reduce physical tension, feel mentally invigorating, and help restore good posture.”


2. Forcing Yourself

Wondering why you lack motivation? In your push to work out more, you may not be meeting yourself halfway.

“It sounds obvious, but taking the time to find a physical activity that you actually enjoy is key to it not feeling like a chore or just another thing on your to-do list you need to plow through,” says Tarma. “If you’re just not a morning person, but you force yourself to participate in 6 AM fitness classes, the experience won’t be enjoyable. Your resolve is bound to fail at some point.”

What to do instead

Find workouts you like at a time that works for you.

“Try out different options at various times of day, and see what actually works with your schedule and your body,” says Tarma. “With the current proliferation of live streaming and virtual fitness options, there’s certainly no shortage of things to try.”


3. Making Yourself Hurt

fitness level - woman - gym - breathing hard

Soreness is not a sign of a good workout. It’s a sign that you’ve pushed yourself too hard.

“The worst piece of advice I hear that is commonly said is ‘No pain, no gain,'” says Brittany Ferri, OTR/L, CPRP, an occupational therapist in Rochester, New York. “This could not be more incorrect.”

What to do instead

A little soreness—like you might experience when starting a new workout program—is fine. But if you’re so sore that you have trouble climbing stairs, getting out of a chair, or otherwise functioning normally, take rest day (or two). Also, dial your workouts back a bit—your goal should be to push yourself as hard as you can without compromising your recovery or your ability to perform at your peak in future workouts.


4. Black-and-White Thinking

“All-or-nothing thinking can actively undermine our mental and physical health,” says Chloe Greenbaum, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “These rigid thoughts can lead to extreme behaviors.” Those include:

  • Under-eating (“I need to lose weight, so I can’t eat more than 1,200 calories a day”)
  • Over-eating (“I already messed up my diet and had three cookies, so I might as well finish the box”)
  • Under-exercising (“I don’t have the energy to do my 60-minute spin class, so what’s the point in doing anything”)
  • Over-exercising (“I’m tired today, but unless I burn 500 calories, I’ll feel like a failure”)

What to do instead

Greenbaum recommends three steps to overcome the all-or-nothings:

  1. Mindfully observe these thoughts instead of automatically and passively subjecting yourself to them (“I’m noticing that I’m creating rigid exercise rules for myself”).
  2. Identify a middle path by coming up with a happy medium between two extremes (“I don’t have the energy to do a spin class, but 15 minutes of Pilates would be better than nothing”).
  3. Cultivate compassion for yourself by letting go of perfectionistic fantasies (“I’m grateful I got in some movement today despite feeling tired”).


5. Negative Self-Talk

“A common but harmful pattern that people do every day is to speak negatively to themselves,” says Eric Patterson, MSCP, NCC, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “By putting themselves down, offering undue criticisms, and being needlessly negative, anxiety increases, depression worsens, and self-esteem crumbles. Not only do these habits affect one’s mental health, but physical health also slides.”

What to do instead

Be kind to yourself. When self-criticism pops into your head, recognize when it’s a pattern and try to laugh it off: “There I go again…”


6. Failing to Plan

smart goals - idea journal

“When we start big and don’t succeed, we dampen our spirits to try again,” says Andrea Levine, an ACE-certified group fitness instructor based in New York City. “What I hear often is people planning to make massive changes in lifestyle right away, such as planning to cook dinner every night when they’d previously ordered take out every night. Or committing to meditating every day for 20 minutes when they’ve meditated only sporadically.

“It’s great to think big and want the best for yourself, but it’s important to create a realistic plan and recognize small wins along the way that will keep up your motivation.”

What to do instead

Levine recommends setting SMART goals. These goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Action-oriented
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

“Someone who wants to cook more could start with twice each week, or choose more nourishing options when ordering food and use those experiences to inspire at-home meals,” she says.


7. Complaining

“While complaining may seem innocuous, the more you do it, the more you rewire your brain for negativity,” says Patricia Celan, MD, a psychiatrist in Nova Scotia, Canada. “Over time, you find it easier to be disappointed, cynical, or generally negative—and harder to be pleased.”

What to do instead

“Instead of complaints, try focusing on gratitude,” says Celan. “Making a daily gratitude list, even for just three to five small things, can change the way your brain cells connect. In the long term, you become a more positive person.”