Before lockdown, I’d hit the gym at 6am most days and often double-up with an evening session. This strength and cardio regimen was tough. But I relished it, and translated my passion into my work as a fitness instructor.
Now, shut out of the gym for more than 100 days, that pre-lockdown fitness addict seems like a stranger. These last few months, I’ve forced myself to keep exercising in my living room — but only because I know I’ll be in an even deeper rut if I don’t. These workouts are as quick and low-effort as possible, and there’s rarely any joy to them.
Sydney personal trainer Matt Cook: Just because gyms are reopening doesn’t mean we have to abandon our lockdown workouts.Credit:Nick Moir
As we emerged from lengthy lockdowns last year, I explored how to ease back into fitness physically (in short: take it slow to avoid injuring yourself). This year, my struggle is returning to fitness mentally. Lockdown’s snuffed out my love of exercise. How do I get it back?
Accept and acknowledge
For advice I turned to Dr Clive Jones, a veteran sports psychologist who’s worked with many pro athletes, including some who travelled to Japan for the Tokyo Olympics. Jones says it’s expected to feel demotivated when you’ve been forced to stop exercising or training — be it by lockdown, or injury or illness. “That powerlessness… can have a person just sort of give up on it,” he tells me.
A step to conquering demotivation is “accepting and acknowledging” circumstances out of your control. We didn’t choose this exercise hiatus, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for emerging from lockdown with lower strength and fitness. “Be kind to yourself and say, ‘It’s OK to start off easy’,” Jones advises.
Change movement, change mood
As much as I’m kind of dreading a return to fitness (especially a return to those early starts), I suspect that the act of just pushing myself back into an exercise routine will reignite my old spark.
Jones agrees that “persevering until [fitness] locks back into being a habit again” will help to break sedentary lockdown habits… like extended Netflix binges. “Sitting on the couch for long periods of time, biologically the body goes into a depressed state — the dopamine eases, the serotonin backs off, and we’re in this constant deactivated state,” he explains.
Physical activity helps to undo those biological changes, sparking a positive feedback loop that boosts motivation to do more physical activity. “Emotion has a physical base,” Jones says. “So when we change our movement, we do change our mood.”
Pretend you’re starting from scratch
Sydney personal trainer Matt Cook says the strategies to re-motivate fitness veterans are the same strategies to motivate fitness beginners. For example: check in with a trainer for workout inspiration, and/or exercise with a friend.
“Having a buddy to keep you accountable is just so much better,” says Cook, who’s spent the last three months training clients outdoors. He points out that just because gyms are reopening doesn’t mean we have to abandon our lockdown workouts. Great advice because I’ve gained a lot from my pandemic exercise – increased flexibility and mobility training, yoga, and even walks exploring local parks – and intend to keep them up.
“Mix it up, and don’t feel like you have to go back to the same old thing,” Cook suggests. “Fitness doesn’t have to be in the gym.”
Obsessive to harmonious passion
The return to fitness is also a chance to reflect on what you loved about it. For me, that’s not just the hard work, but also the community and mental health benefits. Cook cites a mate who used to slog through more than two hours a day in the gym, but has learned in lockdown that he can stay strong without so much punishing effort — hopefully giving him a better attitude towards his training.
Jones describes this as the difference between “obsessive passion”, which can be dysfunctional and destructive, and a “harmonious passion”, which is a healthier and more intrinsic conviction — where we’re not only motivated to exercise, but also motivated to rest, to work or study, to catch up with friends, and maintain those elements of a well-balanced life.
In that light I look at lockdown not as a 100-day setback, but an opportunity to improve my approach to fitness. It’s a good thing my workouts won’t be the same when we reopen — and I’m genuinely excited to find out how they’ll evolve.
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