Left: 18 Years/ Right: 20 Years old me. And then repeat. Twice. It was 15 years…
How to Overcome Exercise Inertia
Some practical tips to help you get unstuck
As I write this, I’m sitting on my 9th straight day of no exercise. How embarrassing!
But I have a great reason(excuse). For the first 4 of these 8 days, I was traveling (I was at home in Delhi, eating Paranthas and enjoying the extended winter). Then, once I came back, work took over and I just haven’t found the time.
Sound familiar? Well here’s the full version.
I could’ve carried my running shoes to Delhi and atleast gone for a run. But I chose not to. Once I got back, I actually got really busy with work for 2 days. The next 2 days though, I could’ve easily hit the gym. But I’d lost momentum. Having already missed 6 days, I thought, ‘What difference would another two make. Let’s just chill this weekend and start on Monday’. So we invited some friends over and drank into the night.
Sound even more familiar?
But today is different. Today is the 10th day of this highly unnecessary break. And today, I can tell you with absolute certainty, I will hit the gym. I know this for a fact.
Infact, I will finish this paragraph, shutdown my laptop, and join my wife at the gym. Then, once I’m back, I’ll share with you my understanding of exercise inertia, its primitive roots, and some modern tricks I’ve learnt to defeat it.
Ok, back now. And thankfully, back to not feeling hypocritical about writing an article on overcoming inertia while being firmly in its grasp. So let’s get to it.
Why do we resist exercise?
Research after research has proven, conclusively, that the human body is designed to move. As it must’ve been, given that, until very recently, we were hunter gatherers. Life needed food, and food needed movement. So life meant movement. Simple.
So why do we resist this movement now!
The reason is simple too. Movement, was never meant to be a 1 hour activity. It was never meant to be a separate part of life. Our bodies, hence, don’t resist movement, they resist movement as a task.
This one simple concept has the power to completely change our relationship with exercise. But like all simple concepts, it has many, many layers to it. And like all powerful concepts, it isn’t that easy to adopt (clearly).
So let’s start by first understanding Exercise Inertia, and what causes it.
I can’t exercise today because ____________
Over the years, from my own experience and that of others, I’ve found that inertia is of two types — Micro and Macro.
Micro inertia is short-term. Like a vacation that you just can’t get out of. Or an injury that broke your momentum. Macro Inertia though , is more fundamental, more long-term, and a lot more dangerous.
Here are a few of the top avatars I’ve seen there two types of Inertia take:
Can’t be best
This is the number one factor, in my judgement, that comes in the way of long-term commitment to fitness. So many people around me are high-achievers. They’ve done exceptionally well at studies, at taking care of family, at finding a partner, and at work. Almost everything they’ve touched, they’ve achieved a fairly high degree of success at.
Everything, apart from their own bodies. Their bodies have, infact, paid the price for all this achievement. As they kept pushing the boundaries, without upgrading their bodies, their bodies kept taking a beating.
And they could, when they were young. But now, post 30, their bodies are beginning to revolt. As they very well deserve to.
Problem is, given where they are starting, there’s little chance they’ll become the alpha in this sphere.
So why start and risk failure? Much easier to sit by the sidelines and judge these crowd-pleasers seeking external validation by getting a six pack!
Closely linked to ‘can’t be best’, this ails those who’ve once started on the path to fitness, kept at it for a few years, but then gave up.
My dream body is still such a distant dream. What’s even the point? I give up.
I suffer from this excuse, atleast twice every year. As far as possible (without making working out my day job), I try to create meal plans and workout schedules and stick to them. It’s this discipline that’s taken me from my 19 year-old self to my 33 year-old self.
But off late, the gains have plateaued. For two years I’ve been trying to solve for my loose skin, to remove that last layer of belly fat, and reveal my abs. My progress though, has been very, very limited.
And every few months, this reality gets to me. Especially when I see some chiseled, jacked, born-fit (yea I’m sure he too put in the effort but sorry I’m not a sage and I can’t accept it!) dude pass me in the gym. Those are the days I order a Cafe Mocha and a piece of cake and watch a movie.
Most of us hit the gym, or start running, or attend yoga — in spurts. A few weeks regular, then a few not. The result, is a lack of visible results. And that’s a huge de-motivator.
For my baby, my mom, my son, my wife. Many of us give up our exercise & fitness time, for others. Sometimes it’s absolutely deserved, but many a times, a convenient excuse. Only you can be truthful about when is what.
And lastly, there is real inertia. A break in momentum. Enforced by a vacation, or an injury or a bout of gluttony (after which any exercise just seems pointless and you give up). We’ve all been there.
How to overcome Inertia
The reason I’ve detailed different forms of inertia, is because I want you to identify which one ails you most?
Is your momentum broken mostly by short term events like vacations or gluttony? Or is your motivation to work out hindered by something more intrinsic, like low self-esteem or fear of failure?
It’s imperative that you diagnose your inertia right. You don’t need me to tell you that the answers to Macro and Micro inertias are very different
Record. Don’t judge.
This is more a guide to achieving the right diagnosis, not a separate point.
Whenever you don’t go to the gym, or for the run you’d promised yourself , just write down the reason in a diary.
Don’t judge yourself. Don’t berate yourself for not living up to your own commitments. It’s exactly this narrative that makes you give up. It gives you the license to conclude that you’ll never be able to do it. So why even try?
Instead, create a log. Fill it for a month. And then look back.
How many times did you skip gym for coffee with a friend? How many times did you skip it because you forgot to carry gym clothes? And how many times did you skip it after looking at yourself in the mirror?
Once you know what’s stopping you, you’ll overcome it. I guarantee you.
But just to make sure you do, here are my favorite ways to overcome my own inertia:
There are times I’m cozy in my blanket, or slightly under-slept, or heavily over-fed. At these times, I despise the thought of getting up, getting dressed, and then mustering the energy to go through a full gym workout.
Interestingly, it is at such times, that many other great alternatives suddenly present themselves. That book I’ve been meaning to read, that movie I’ve been wanting to watch. And a choice between heavy lifting and Masterchef, isn’t really a choice.
Unfortunately, once I give in, I keep giving in. Because the logic of yesterday, is equally applicable today. And this has a snowballing effect. Next thing you know, momentum has shifted from ‘working out’ to ‘not working out’. Crap.
So now, whenever my brain asks me to decide between a 10k run and Masterchef, I first ask my brain to re-phrase the question. I bargain.
I say, ‘Ok, no 10k run, but maybe just a 5k. Or just a 3k.’ The same applies to a 30 min workout if not a 60 min.
Remember that hitting the gym is far more important than killing it the day you do. 30 mins of exercise is infinitely better than no exercise. And even a 15 minute session means that you didn’t let momentum break. You didn’t let the balance of power shift. And that is extremely valuable.
But who am I kidding. A few hours after that amazing lunch buffet, the problem is not ‘how long will I workout’. It is that ‘I don’t want to workout’. Right?
When the inertia gets so severe, there’s no point fighting with your brain. Because it know its own weaknesses. And it’ll use all means to not do what’s good for the body.
At such times, I have just one condition. That I won’t take the decision while lying on the couch. I’ll make it on the move.
It’s fine if we don’t work out today, I tell my brain. But we definitely can walk around a bit. So I’ll do that, and then, if we still don’t feel like going, we wont. No stress.
This simple trick works, whenever I am able to apply it (clearly there are times when the brain doesn’t even let me do this much). It works because it draws on the primitive code embedded into our bodies.
Our bodies are made for movement.
It’s only when we are not moving, that we don’t want to move.
So just get up, walk around a bit. Go downstairs, breathe in some fresh air. And be amazed at how your mind suddenly opens up to the idea of doing even more.
I’m sure you’ve all experienced days when you dragged yourself to the gym, only to have one of your best sessions. Try and build these days into your muscle memory. Movement begets movement. And inertia works both ways.
A word for Coffee & Music
While the internal struggle is real, there isn’t any shame in soliciting some external help. A big cup of black coffee, and an adrenalin pumping playlist (Have you heard the URI soundtrack! It’ll make you want to execute a surgical strike, forget about lifting a few dumbbells), are always welcome additions.
So that’s it. If you haven’t yet been able to kick off those New Year Resolutions, and are about to give up on yourself…don’t!
Diagnose what form of Inertia is stopping you from getting started, grab a cup of coffee, put on those headphones and head out for a small walk. By the time you’re on you way back, you wouldn’t want to.