When We Do Not Want to Exercise

How do you make yourself exercise when you do not want to?  By telling yourself not to exercise.

Let me explain.

I was sitting on the edge of my bed yesterday morning not wanting to go to the gym when a dim memory pushed its way forward to grab my consciousness.  I remembered years ago the first time Incrementalism worked for me.  I was standing in front of my high school weight-room mirror staring at my dream to play football fading from my own eyes.  “I can’t do it,” I remembered thinking.  I had been told by my coach that I had to be able to bench-press 300 pounds by the end of August to be able to play on the football team.  It was May and I had just struggled with 130 pounds.  “I can’t do it,” I said again as I looked into my eyes watched my dream dying there. 

And I did quit for a week… without knowing it.  I tried to get excited by the thought of lifting 300 pounds, but each time I thought about working toward the 300 at the gym I would find something else to do rather than go lift.

“If I cannot do it,” I finally thought, “at least I can work as hard as I can and get as far as I can get.  Maybe the coaches will see my hard work and let me play.”  Then I stopped testing my bench-press maximum.  Instead, I began measuring the number of days in a row I worked out.  I recorded the repetitions I lifted each day and the weight in each muscle group and tried to improve one or both a little bit every day.  Some days I would see that I could lift more weight more times.  Some days a win was just doing the workout because I plateaued.  Some days I conned myself that I was just going to put on my workout clothes, just step inside the gym.   But I would not go backward.  My minimum requirement was a slight improvement in the activity of lifting weights… every day.  Give up on the big goal; instead, just try to consistently improve a little each day.

At the end of August on the first day of football try-outs, all the guys gathered in the parking lot outside the stadium.  Our coach emerged and the first sound that came from his mouth deflated me, “Everybody to the Weight Room!”  My time came to test my bench-press.  I lay on my back and 2 guys stacked 300 pounds on the bar.  The spotter helped me pull the bar up on top of my locked-straight arms.  “Stay close,” I told him, “this could be ugly.”  The bar came down onto my chest; I closed my eyes and prayed… and pushed.

The bar was up.  What happened??  Had the spotter helped me?  No, he was still standing back.  The 300 pounds had lifted somewhat easier than the 130 the last time I had tested my maximum.

“Add 5,” coach said.  305 went up as well.

“5 more.”

I maxed out at 315.  I was shocked.  But it has been a pattern I have seen ever since.  Individuals can surpass a seemingly impossible achievement by moving in its direction incrementally but consistently.

So yesterday morning I told myself, “Don’t workout.  Just put on workout clothes.” Once that was done I “just walked into the gym” and then “just did one set” of one muscle group… and ended up having a great workout.  Our willpower is weak sometimes when faced with a large task.  But small steps feel easy and get us further than we ever think we can go.