It’s the first day of the year that feels like winter.
The true winter solstice is still some weeks away, and the first snow was a month ago, near the beginning of November. But to look outside today—to see a dusting of white underneath a gray Chicago sky, hear wind shake my eighth floor window—it’s only possible to think one word.
There’s no way I’m going to the gym. I don’t feel like working out today. At least, that’s what I thought at first.
It’s a Saturday, and all I really want to do is curl up under three blankets to binge some Netflix. It’s the kind of day where you ask yourself “how important is food really,” because even though the kitchen is just a dozen feet away, getting out of bed makes the journey to the food feel like a marathon.
I don’t want to work out today. But around mid-morning, grumbling to myself all the while, I put on my gym shorts and sweatpants, toss on a couple of extra layers, and dig out my warmest hat. It kind of bobbles at the top if I move my head too quickly, and honestly looks a bit stupid—but it’s warm, and I’ll make it to the gym with my ears intact.
When I get to the gym, it’s like I’m walking in a pool of syrup. My movements feel slower, more difficult and exaggerated. My energy is low, and I’m already wondering if maybe I should have stayed home. I don’t feel like working out today. Maybe I should have believed that.
I hop on a spin bike, and it goes ok at first. I’m not biking at the highest resistance, or as fast as I’ve ever done, but at least I’m biking. I’ve got a Spotify playlist to keep me going.
And then Moanin’ comes on, by Charles Mingus.
A lone baritone sax hits the deep opening notes. A brief pause, then the bari sax continues. The rest of the band joins in slowly, and after a minute the piece is really starting to move.
As the music picks up, I find myself unconsciously adjusting, upping my speed so that I can match the rhythm. I’m starting to breathe harder now. I can start to feel sweat clinging to my skin.
I glance in the mirror, and what I see almost makes me stop pedaling. It’s me, sitting upright, half-breathing half-gasping, with a madman’s grin spread across my face.
This Saturday morning workout very nearly didn’t happen. But just 10 minutes in I was having the time of my life—or at least as much fun as a person can have on a stationary bike. When I walked out of the gym an hour later, the not-quite-winter air felt cool and nice against my still-warm skin.
How to Work Out When You Think “I Don’t Feel Like Working Out Today”
It’s easy to look at the story I just told and take away a simple piece of advice: don’t want to exercise? Too bad. Just force yourself to do it. You’ll feel better after.
In truth, I think that kind of advice is at best unhelpful and at worst demoralizing. And I don’t think that’s the most important lesson of this story.
There are two elements that I think are critical and hard to spot. In the story, I don’t feel like working out. On the surfaced, the story says “do it anyway.” But looking a little bit deeper, there are two important pieces of information missing:
- I almost never work out on Saturdays
- At the time of the story, I had been consistently working out for over five years
This information adds new layers of meaning. This isn’t the story of someone who usually struggles to work out—I don’t want to exercise in the moment, but it’s the story of a workout habit being challenged and emerging victorious from the fray.
Chances are you either work out or have tried to work out before. So you know that the first workout isn’t the hard part. It gets hard in the days, weeks, and months that follow, when you try to work out even when you don’t want to exercise.
And if you don’t have the right systems in place, it’s hard to do that. Even when you do have them, they can fail or be challenged, as they were for me.
You find yourself thinking “I don’t feel like working out today.” So you don’t. And you still make it back to the gym for your next workout.
But at some point the days where you say “I don’t feel like working out today” or “I don’t want to exercise” become more frequent.
If you want to work out consistently, you need to develop a true workout habit. And if you want to be able to work out even on the days when Netflix beckons, here’s how you can do it.
Working Out When You Don’t Want to Exercise Tactic One: Chaining
Why did I specifically mention that this story took place on a Saturday? Because for me and others who don’t work on the weekends, Saturday is a terrible day to work out.
It’s counterintuitive—Saturday is probably the day of the week with the most free time. Deceptively, it seems like a great day for getting things done.
The problem is that the weekend brings with it lack of structure. And though that lack of structure can be great for relaxation, it makes choosing to go to the gym difficult.
The psychology research on habits and human behavior shows that we rarely choose to do things in a vacuum. The environment we’re in, the people we’re around, and the actions we’ve just taken play a huge role in the actions we take next.
Put more simply: actions are triggered by previous actions and events.
Building the Chain
I usually work out during the week, after work. In this context, I get on the same bus I always get on and just ride it two extra stops until it drops me off a 5-minute walk away from the gym.
The fact that I’m already moving, already going somewhere, makes it easier to leverage that momentum into a trip to the gym. I don’t have to decide to get dressed, put on a coat and stupid hat, dig out boots and gym shoes. I just have to ride the bus a little longer.
On the weekends, though, the structure is gone. I don’t get to go seamlessly from one action to the next—there are no previous actions to cue the next action.
The lack of structure is so severe that it makes me question eating—just because I don’t want to get out of bed to make food. Obviously I eventually get hungry enough to make food, but if it’s that hard to get out of bed for food, going to the gym is vastly more difficult.
The feeling of dread that comes alongside not wanting to go to the gym can be overcome (more on that in a second), but if you can it’s really best to avoid it. Connecting a gym habit to things you already do in your everyday life can resolve these feelings before they even come up.
I call this “chaining,” and it’s a powerful tool to develop habits. Ask yourself: what actions can you chain together to help go to the gym more consistently?
Working Out When You Don’t Want to Exercise Tactic Two: Small Workouts
If the weekends are a terrible time to work out, why was I working out on a Saturday?
Well, it’s hard to deny that there’s much more time to do stuff on a Saturday, and from time to time that factors into the decision. On this particular occasion, a work event earlier in the week interrupted a scheduled workout. So I needed to make it up.
How was I able to go to the gym, even though I originally thought “I don’t feel like working out today?”
The answer comes because of a pair of things I know to be true:
- If I go to the gym, no matter how much I didn’t want to at first, I always feel better afterwards
- If I convince myself to go to the gym by saying I’ll do a lighter workout, I almost always wind up doing a full workout
The hardest part of going to the gym is not the workout—it’s actually going to the gym. If you can get yourself in the door, you’re very likely to have a good time.
So how do you work out on days where you think “I don’t feel like working out today?”
- Build a workout habit that chains your gym-going to other activities
- Allow yourself to do just a small workout. If it turns into more, great! If not, that’s ok too.
- Select workouts that feel good
The third point is the final thought I want to leave you with. When I was gasping on the stationary bike, I was grinning like an idiot.
Even once it got harder, when my breathing was labored and my legs were burning, my expression was still a mix between grin and grimace.
Learning to Love Exercise
I’ve been working out for years. Even though at first I didn’t like working out and struggled to stay consistent, I’ve come to genuinely love the gym. Pedaling away and listening to Mingus is all I could have possibly asked for in that moment.
Over time, and with the right workouts, you will come to love how the gym makes you feel.
Don’t want to exercise? That probably won’t last long. Exercise has an incredible effect on your physical and mental health—and all the research says that exercise can literally make you happy.
You might not be there right now. You might still think “I don’t want to work out today.” You might even think it a lot.
In the meantime, while your relationship with exercise develops, use chaining and small workouts to build an exercise routine you can stick to.
I still spent a lot of that Saturday under the covers watching Netflix. But when I did, I could feel the slight soreness of my muscles, take a deep breath, and smile.