How to work hard when you’re exercising

Here’s a common thing people ask me about in my work: how do I motivate myself to….?

And the answer is different, for different people and different situations. But today I wanted to talk about a particular situation with a particular client.

He is a young guy who wants to lose a little weight, get a little fitter, but mostly this: use exercise as a tool to improve his mood. As you can imagine, I am completely in support of this. Difficulty is, he’s depressed. And the nature of depression is such that it can rob you of your motivation and drive, leaving you feeling like all you want to do is sit around all day. This isn’t a case of people with depression being lazy – when someone is depressed the structure of their brain actually changes and this makes it very difficult for them to motivate themselves.

And this bloke I was working with wasn’t just sitting around all day, he was making a solid effort to get moving. He was on the treadmill for 10 – 15 minutes a day, walking. He wanted to start increasing his intensity, so we began with adding in a few short intervals of higher intensity (slow jog for 30 seconds or so). This was going well. We had another session, and he talked about wanting to increase the treadmill walking to 20 minutes – he identified that he wanted to get to the point of being able to go for a steady jog, and I reckoned he was on track with what he wanted to do. The following week he came back and told me he’d tried to go to 20, but gotten to around the 15 minute mark, felt really tired and couldn’t do anymore. He said “I think I need to do more, but I just get to that point and it feels hard, and then I stop. How do I motivate myself to do it?”

And honestly, I wish I had the magic pill to say “Oh, all you need to do is *** and you’ll be motivated as larry!” but unfortunately that’s not the case. So instead I asked him if he thought his body was legitimately exhausted at the 15 minute mark or if he thought it was more of a psychological thing. He reckoned psychological – so we tested it out. He jumped on the treadmill in the session and got going. At the 10 minute mark he looked and asked, “Should I stop?” and I responded with “No way buddy!” with a smile on his face, he kept going. He finished the 20 minutes with a huge grin, and feeling pretty happy. He said, “Now I know I can do it, I think I can do it at home”. The next week? He’d done 20 minutes daily.

Then he stumbled at increasing it to 30 minutes. He said, “It feels tiring”. We then talked about one of my favourite learnings (it’s a word, alright?) from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – that just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true. We spoke about how even though he might be having the thought “This is too hard, I can’t do anymore” it didn’t necessarily mean he actually couldn’t. That perhaps it was just a thought going around because he was working hard.

This is not to be confused with direct messages from your body about working too hard and needing a rest. I asked him if he was willing to do the following: try it out. Try aiming for the 30 minutes and see what happens. When he got to that point where the thoughts start coming of “I’m tired now, I want to stop” – just question them. He didn’t’ need to decide whether they were ‘true’ or not – but just question their validity, in the context of his goal of staying on the treadmill for 30 minutes. If he decided that yep, it’s a direct message from my body and I actually do need to stop, that was totally cool. But if he decided that nah, this one is just a thought coz I’m working hard, then he could choose to keep going.

He was keen to try this. And yeah, to cut a 30 minute story short, he made the 30. He worked hard, he built up a sweat – but he also built up a pretty big grin. His plan is to now do 30 minutes a day. Now he knows he can do it.

The goal isn’t to ignore all the thoughts we have, and stop trusting our intuition and the messages we receive. But when it comes to changing long held habits or pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, sometimes it can be helpful to question our automatic thoughts and assumptions about our capacity. This is where it can be helpful to have external support to help challenge us – but you can also do this yourself. Keeping in mind your values, how you want to life your life and what you’re working towards, and getting some distance from passing thoughts, can be a powerful motivator.


Do you have a different way you motivate yourself to keep going when it feels hard? Let me know in the comments below.