Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
How do I find the motivation to keep going to the gym? I've started and stopped workout plans a couple of times now; I'm super moto in the beginning, but get bored and fall off after two or three weeks. How do you stay motivated? — Marley
The issue of motivation comes up more or less constantly in relation to the gym. I’ve answered it in various ways before, but now having even more years under my belt of grappling with my own motivation issues, I think we’re ready to iterate on the themes again.
As humans, we are not really biologically primed to process the abstract motivations that govern modern life. “Eat that food in front of you,” “run away from that bear,” “fall asleep because you’re so tired your eyes won’t stay open”—these things we can handle. But eating healthy foods early in the day so as to not feel like shit later? Exercising to keep your blood pressure down? Going to bed because you have to wake up early every day this week, or because sleep deprivation leads to long-term cognitive decline? Here we start to lose the thread.
Up until a certain point in our lives, parents or family figures do all of that steering for us, forcing us to eat vegetables, allowing us to lean gleefully into hating every second of the stuff we don’t want to do, because they are going to force us to do it anyway. Part of becoming an adult is, supposedly, that you stop living moment to moment and start living for these more bigger-picture forces like middle- and long-term health. But what happens when you’re grown and you still hate vegetables but there is no one to force you to eat them but yourself? Welcome to being an adult, baby.
You asked specifically about working out, but I’m talking about all these other unrelated health habits because they all fit into a much larger picture of “how to take basic care of yourself as you get older” in a way that we don’t often extend to exercise, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s becoming quite clear through research that exercise is key to many elements of our well-being, some of which we previously thought could just be managed just through diet or painkillers (Hi, to all my 30-something friends who are now constantly complaining of the notorious ‘lower back pain’). The science is clear: bodies gotta move. They like it. They respond to it. And not just your muscles, but your nervous system and immune system and your lungs and your brain. If you’re not working out in some capacity, you are swimming uphill against your own biology.
So this is the least fun part of the answer, however it is probably the most universally true: you don’t keep going to the gym because you feel motivated to; you do it to to address that abstract concept of “wellbeing” and to take care of yourself.
You may get an infusion of good feelings when you first start that consistent routine: You have more energy! Your body hurts less! You feel more mobile! You feel stronger! But eventually it fades into the background. It pains me to admit this, but all people who go to the gym consistently don’t do it because they are truly and constantly motivated. I often don’t feel like going to the gym. Many days, I’d much rather go home and lie down for five hours straight. But I go because if I don’t go today, I’ll feel like I have to go tomorrow, and between today and tomorrow maybe I’ll get a terrible night of sleep that will make going tomorrow even worse. If I’m being honest, sometimes I develop a good old fashioned case of nihilism and DON’T go to the gym. Sometimes I don’t go for more practical reasons like work deadlines and social schedules. It's fine; I know this because having gone to the gym consistently for a long enough period of time, I'm very aware of the substantial effect that it has on my mood, my anxiety, my sleep. So, I know that even if I take time off, I'll get back to the gym eventually because the benefits of going highly outweigh the drawbacks, and I know what those benefits feel like.
Many days, people who go to the gym are simply checking a box. And it can feel amazing to check a box, to accomplish something personal and meaningful in your day, and to leave it at that.
But you should know there doesn’t NEED to be a higher premium on this activity. Going to the gym doesn’t have to be about feeling motivated and gung-ho all the time, and it doesn’t have to take over your personality; it can just be about taking basic care of yourself.
All this said, sometimes, just checking a box can feel incredibly futile, and one of the best possible cures for that futility is “having a goal.” Goals can feel scary, abstract, or hard to achieve, but the nice thing about gym goals is that a) you don't have to tell anyone about them, so they can be whatever you want, and you can choose to achieve them however you like, and b) your goals and methods can change whenever you feel like it (though I’d add the moderate caveat that sometimes you do need to give yourself some time and space to let a process work; you don’t want to be changing up your program every three days).
If you’ve never been good at making or achieving goals, working out is actually a good way of practicing it, because the stakes are fairly low and none of it is THAT hard; sometimes you just have to admit you want something, and then admit you want it badly enough that you are willing to put in a concerted effort to achieve it. In the gym, you can’t really fail, because there is no set time frame or person you have to please other than yourself. If something you try doesn’t work, it’s an experiment from which you learned, and that’s it.
I have never felt more motivated or happier to go to the gym than when I decided to get as strong as possible at any cost; I pushed all my weights, did as-many-reps-as-possible sets, ate like a horse, and embraced the idea of deliberately gaining (a modest amount of) body fat. I loved this process. I loved feeling strong, and I loved my body more than ever before despite the fact that I’d always been terrified of gaining weight. While I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how abstract gym-going can be, it can also be remarkably concrete in ways that a lot of things in life are not: You’re adding more weight to the barbell, you’re eating radically more but not ballooning in size, and the next time you work out, you'll see that that incremental hard work has paid off in the form of more strength, and so you do it again.
So perhaps you are ready to admit that you have a goal of getting stronger; this means you want to lift more and more weight every week, and eat and sleep to support that process. This kind of goal gives you a middle-distance motivation to hang your gym-going on, aside from the extremely abstract one of “your health.” Perhaps you want to learn to do a pull-up; I won’t say that pull-ups aren’t hard, but I will also say that way, WAY more people can do them than think they can. You do not have to be some sort of genetic freak in order to do one, you just need to be ready to put in the time and effort. Perhaps you want to learn to rock-climb, or take up rowing, or do a handspring; you’d be surprised by the wide variety of things that are enhanced by being a little bit stronger.
Part of good goal-setting will involve thinking of yourself as someone who is capable of changing. One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite mediocre movies, Hitch, is: “‘You’ is a very fluid concept right now.” The thing is, “you” is always a pretty fluid concept, or at least much more fluid than people might expect. Many of us have so many preconceived notions about who we are or are not based on attributes that, in internet parlance, are not personalities. “Is able to do a pullup” is not a personality. “Goes to the gym” is not a personality. “Has abs” is not a personality. “Wears a lifting belt” is not a personality.
I see a lot of people stall and balk from trying this stuff out because they are afraid of what people will think of them or what it will mean about who they “are.” Doing these things, or wanting to do these things, does not define you as a person. But wanting to do things for yourself does, and that is a definition no one should ever shy away from. Even though we use this “is not a personality” rhetoric in a snide way toward people who maybe DO appear to see having abs as a way of life, we can also turn it generously toward ourselves: working out, or your appearance, or your desires to be fit are not who you are.
Now, even when you have a goal, you will have days when you feel like you cannot be bothered to care. They happen; push through, or skip, and if that happens too much, try to make a new goal that feels inspiring and be clear with yourself about what you really want.
There is a lot that can be done for your motivational struggle, but some of it will have to do with pulling up your big-girl pants and being honest with yourself about what really makes you who you are, and who you want to be, and how a reticent and/or judgmental attitude toward “fitness goals” might fit into that. Much as I’d love for everyone to go to the gym and get strong as hell, the actual most important thing that strength building can foster is not physical strength, but strength…….. of character. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry to be corny, but it’s true.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.