How to Boost Your Motivation to Move


My alarm buzzed insistently this morning at 6:00AM, just like it does every morning. Time to exercise.

Some days I wake up immediately and spring out of bed ready to get moving, but other days I groan and cover my head with the pillow to block out the racket and avoid the torture. Never works.

I have a strategy that makes it nearly impossible for me to get totally derailed with my exercise, despite my resistance: I set the bar as low as possible.

I Used to Hate to Exercise, So I Didn’t Do it

There was a time not so long ago when I was so sick and tired, I absolutely could not get out of bed and exercise. I was too heavy and too depressed.

I hated everything about exercise. The sweating, the panting, the pain, and the embarrassment. And I didn’t feel better afterwards. Most of the time it took several painful days to recover. It didn’t feel worth it.

My Attitude Slowly Changed After Surgery

After weight loss surgery, my support group leader emphasized that exercise is critical to long-term weight loss and maintenance. She stressed that exercise builds muscles, and that building muscles would help me burn more calories, even at rest. But I still hated it. And that’s why keeping the bar low was the best tool I could use.

Starting Is the Hardest Part

Keeping the bar low means setting small, easy-to-achieve goals. By setting easy goals, I overcame my resistance and started exercising.

The first week I set a goal of walking for 10 minutes a day in my house! I didn’t even go outside. I just walked the circle from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room and back to the kitchen. I used the kitchen timer, so that I could quit in exactly 10 minutes.

My next goal was to add three minutes a week to my walking regimen. The second week I continued to walk inside. Only this time I walked for 13 minutes a day.

Week three, I screwed up my courage and walked for 15 minutes a day outside. Seven-and-a-half minutes out, and seven-and-a-half minutes back. I didn’t even attempt to go around the block. The thought of it created a wave of anxiety that paralyzed me.

Before Long I Craved my Walks

I know, it’s hard to believe, but after several weeks I was walking quite a bit, and really liking it. I weighed less and less, and that made moving easier and easier. The effect was very motivating.

Next, I invited my neighbor to walk with me and we started walking every evening at 8pm. At first, I worried that our evening walks weren’t good enough.

I scolded myself for not exercising in the morning. After all, the exercise experts say morning is best. But perfection is the enemy of good enough. I walked in the evening, almost every evening, for two years. My weight loss was excellent. Walking in the evening was just one more way to keep that bar low.

As a bonus, taking those nightly walks (and having those nightly talks) with my neighbor was so much fun, I didn’t even think of it as exercise.

Eventually, I also added in some weight training to build different muscle groups and increase my ability to burn calories. I trained twice a week, and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, which was a true surprise for me.

Then, I Moved

When I moved away, I lost my walking buddy, and much to my surprise, my motivation. Being so out of my comfort zone in my new city, I stopped exercising completely.

I didn’t feel comfortable walking alone in my neighborhood at night, and I didn’t have anyone to go with me. I had a lot of reasons to not exercise, and they all sounded good to me.

But I also knew that I was at risk for weight regain if I didn’t do something. I was pretty annoyed about this. Felt sorry for myself. Felt hopeless.

So, I Started at “Square One” Again

Several weeks ago, I decided the best time for me to exercise, based on my new commitments, is first thing in the morning, before my day gets too complicated.

To create some motivation, I set the timer for 10 minutes and walked around my new house. Silly, I know. But I needed to set the bar so low I simply couldn’t resist.

I did this for a couple of days. Then, one brave morning I ventured out to try the gym, telling myself that even there I could quit after 10 minutes, but I didn’t. I was on that elliptical for about 30 minutes and it felt fine. No big deal.

My Motivation Is Hit or Miss

My life is crazier and busier than it used to be, so some days, honestly, I don’t wake up wanting to exercise. As I lie there with the pillow pulled over my head, muffling the buzz of the alarm, I search for reasons not to get up and exercise.

One day the dread was so bad I told myself I only had to do one minute of exercise. So, I got up, went into the kitchen, set the timer, and marched in place for one minute. Then I reset the timer for 10 minutes and did stretching exercises. The important thing is to keep your routine.

It didn’t matter that my exercise was relatively lame for that one day. What mattered is that I got up and did something. The next day I got up and went to the gym with a better attitude, I think because I knew I had a choice.

Set Your Bar Low

If you are struggling with motivation, set the bar low for a while. But set it. Consistency is far more important than duration or intensity of exercise.

Try not to worry about the intensity and duration of your exercise when you are having a bad day, just show up. Motivation follows action, even when it’s only a little action.

Let that idea sink in: Motivation FOLLOWS action.

Your Assignment

If you dread exercise, but wish you would do it, decide what time of day is going to be your best bet for taking a few minutes to move your body. Then, do something every day at that time, even if it’s just 1 minute of stretching or walking around your living room. Do this for one week. Then plan to add another minute (or more) to your routine. Take it slow and keep the bar low.

Originally published in 2009.

If you’d like to reprint this article, please include the following credit:

From Katie Jay’s Small Bites newsletter. Subscribe and get your complimentary report: The 21 Most Common Mistakes People Make after Bariatric Surgery at © 2022, Katie Jay. All rights reserved.