Life can come at you hard. One minute, you're meeting your goals, eating well, and getting all your scheduled workouts in; the next minute, the unexpected happens. It's easy to be thrown off track by family stress, work stress, or even an injury. You no longer have the time or the mental and emotional capacity, so you skip a workout.
But then one missed workout turns into two, then two turns into three, and before you know it, your last time at the gym was three months ago. Life throws us curveballs that sap our motivation and force us off track; this is normal. There is nothing wrong with taking time to tend to other priorities when necessary. The problem is veering so far off track that you abandon your health altogether.
Rough times are always going to happen. Something will always make it more challenging to get the day-to-day things done. But if you prioritize your health, you can find a way to ensure that tough times don't throw you back into unhealthy habits. Here are some ways to do that:
1. Find a way to keep it moving.
Maybe your schedule has suddenly changed, and you can't make it to the gym to do your workouts this week. Is there something else that you can do at a different time? It isn't healthy to become so rigidly obsessed with your scheduled workout routine that you don't allow yourself space to be human. Ask yourself, "how can I still move?"
2. Scale it back.
Can you still stick to your regular workout routine but do a bit less? Sometimes carrying a heavy mental or emotional load can feel like an actual physical weight that can hold us back from exerting ourselves too much. Going for a walk instead of your usual run or decreasing the weight you're lifting might make your workout feel like less of a struggle. If you can avoid veering off schedule, you can prevent starting a domino effect where you fall off track completely.
3. Channel your emotions.
Sometimes tough times can make you run away from your workouts when you should be doing the opposite. The stress relief, mental clarity, and sense of confidence you get from structured exercise are often precisely what you need to face the world head-on. Finding a physical outlet for emotional energy will improve your mood and make you more resilient to stress.
4. Choose slower, kinder movement.
Sometimes though, even strength training feels like too much. Sometimes, adding additional weight feels undesirable when there's a lot on your plate. In these moments, resist the urge to do nothing. Becoming sedentary may make you feel worse, especially if you stop moving for extended periods. During these times, seek out low-impact, rejuvenating, and restorative forms of movement, such as walking, yoga, or tai chi. Moving slowly, working consciously with your breath, and connecting to your body can help you feel more centered.
5. Go for a walk.
Don't underestimate the restorative power of long walks in nature. Walking is the most accessible, gentle, natural form of exercise. Decompress. Breathe fresh air. Whatever you're going through, taking some time to yourself can bring you back to your center, invigorating you to continue with your usual workout routine. And don't feel like you're failing because you aren't sticking to your original workout plan. Walking is a valid and sufficient form of exercise.
6. Dance it out.
Dancing is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise and a great way to relieve stress. Like all cardio, dancing releases endorphins in your brain that make you feel good. Join a Zumba class, try some follow-along dance videos on YouTube, or put on your favorite playlist and freestyle.
Dance connects you to your body in powerful ways. This concept is the idea behind dance/movement therapy, which uses dance to improve physical and emotional well-being. If you're feeling overwhelmed, dancing may be the answer. And don't worry about how you look while doing it; it's all about how you feel.
7. Ease back into it.
When you're finally ready to get back into the swing of things, don't try to go as hard as you did before. Depending on how much time you took off, you probably lost some of the conditioning you've built up along the way. Scale back a few pounds on the weights or shorten your mileage and start with an easier-to-manage workout. The last thing you want is to jump too eagerly back into your plan only to become discouraged because the exercise feels too difficult or you're too sore in the days after.
8. Pivot & evolve.
Maybe your life has become too complicated and stressful to maintain the same workout schedule as before. Sometimes we're met with challenges that force us to toss out our plans entirely and come up with new ones. Don't be afraid to evolve. Find a new workout regimen that works better with your new reality.
If something is preventing you from keeping up with running, the efficiency of an at-home jump rope workout routine may fit better. If you can't make it to the gym to lift weights, invest in a kettlebell or two and maintain your strength with at-home circuits. Use this as an opportunity to discover new, enjoyable ways to move.
9. Pursue a meaningful goal
It's much easier to maintain your fitness in stressful times when you have concrete, meaningful goals that you want to attain. Find an activity that will drive you to want to succeed. This activity will also provide you with a mental outlet, giving you something other than your everyday troubles to focus on. Here are some goal ideas to keep you motivated and moving:
"I want to be able to...
Find the goal that works for you, and get after it. The journey of working towards something new and the confidence you feel once you accomplish it can be life-changing. You may eventually find yourself more determined and capable of tackling life's challenges.
10. Find a fitness group.
Joining a fitness group can help keep you active when life gets stressful. These people share your interests and goals, so they understand what's it like to lose motivation every once in a while. They can help keep you accountable while giving you a community space to decompress and take your mind off your troubles. Consider joining a running group, a spin or dance class, a CrossFit box, or any fitness group that fits your interests.
11. Cultivate discipline.
If you ask regular exercisers how they maintain their motivation to stay active when life gets rough, they'll tell you that it isn't motivation at all; it's discipline. Prioritizing your health means getting up and moving your body, even when you don't want to.
Life can get tricky. But preparing for these moments can help soften the blow and make things much smoother. Making physical activity a regular part of your day-to-day life can put you in the mental, emotional, and physical state necessary to conquer life's obstacles.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York, currently residing in Jacksonville, Florida. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.