It’s hard show up for a 7 a.m. spin class when you were up half the night with a sick kid. Going for a run during your lunch break may not be feasible when your boss is waiting for you to complete a big project. Every day presents difficult challenges, and it’s tough to choose between spending your time working toward personal goals versus answering to one of the many roles you play in life—all of which can be satisfying in different ways.
What’s even more detrimental is the resentment that comes from feeling locked in to a rigid training plan. Skipping workouts, cutting them short, or deviating from your regimen in other ways usually leads to feelings of guilt, disappointment, self-doubt, and lack of motivation. You may start to wonder:
Will I still be fit enough to reach my goals?
Does my inability to stick with a fitness routine mean I’m uncommitted or lazy?
Is working out not worth doing at all if I can’t do it consistently?
Negative self-talk is not the best way to get back on track. In fact, it’s a surefire way to derail your plans or make something that used to be fun feel like a punishment.
The first step to establishing a sustainable workout routine is to wipe out any destructive feelings, like guilt and frustration, with a heavy dose of self-compassion. Kristen Neff, Ph.D., a researcher and author of the book Self Compassion, has extensively studied the role self-compassion plays in women’s relationship to exercise and their bodies. “Ultimate health and well-being are achieved by people feeling kindness and compassion for themselves because they are human beings, not because they have some particular trait such as being physically fit,” says Neff.
Neff’s work has also identified a distinct difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. “Whereas high self-esteem depends on successful performances and positive self-evaluations, self-compassion is relevant precisely when self-esteem tends to falter: when one fails or feels inadequate,” she says.
How do you bring more self-compassion to your daily routine? One way is to anticipate disruptions and have a shame-free plan for dealing with them. Not only will your exercise plan become more feasible, but also you’ll enjoy it more and get better long-term results, too.
Sustainable training differs from consistent training in that it flows around whatever else is going on in your life. There will be times when you can train more and others times when you’ll train less—and that’s okay! Building in some wiggle room for these inevitable and perfectly normal ebbs and flows will create far less stress and emotional upheaval.
“When an injury or illness sets me back, I know that everything I’ve done is not wasted because every run is purposeful whether or not I make it to the start line of any race,” says Tracy Smith, an avid runner in Atlanta, Georgia. Smith’s adaptability supports her long-term vision for her health and well-being without being confined to an unbending routine. Such a compassionate approach to exercise can help you build better outcomes, too. Here’s how:
1. Self-compassion helps you…stay motivated.
By focusing on what you can do instead of what you can’t or what you blew off yesterday, you are empowered to take immediate action. It’s one thing to miss two training sessions due to a work deadline, but to give up on the rest of the week’s exercise because you feel unworthy or that’s it’s not worthwhile only prolongs the setback. Get rid of the detrimental phrase “I’ll start fresh next week” and consider every day a new start.
2. Self-compassion helps you…have more energy.
Negative self-talk (“I’m so slow and weak”) and feelings of disappointment, frustration and anxiety waste a lot of energy. Sports psychologists have long understood that negative thoughts and emotions can be counter-productive for performance, especially in competition. A 2013 study of college-age swimmers and professional rugby players published in The Sport Psychologist found that having a negative attitude (or lack of motivation) led to burnout faster than physical exhaustion and even defeat. When you call yourself slow and weak, your body will move slowly and weakly. This bad attitude causes stress-related responses in the body like muscular tension, shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, loss of coordination—all of which can impact the quality and enjoyment of your workout.
Use an affirmation of compassion to turn negative self-talk into positive affirmations. For example: “Even though I feel tired today, I’m going to be as strong and as powerful as I can be with these next three sets.” Or take a cue from actress Lena Dunham who recently shared exercise advice from her coach Matt Wilpers, who works at New York’s Mile High Run Club, with espnW.com: “…approach running with confidence…He used the term ‘run arrogant,’ which means, run like somebody who knows how to run.”
3. Self-compassion helps you…make wiser modifications.
It’s easier to make good decisions about how to substitute one form of exercise for another or modify your routine when coming from a place of compassion. A study published in the journal Psychological Science showed that present-moment awareness, which arises from a compassionate mindset, can influence the degree to which “sunk-cost bias” affects decision making. For example, you’ve spent months training for a half marathon when you develop a painful foot injury. You fear that not running for several weeks may undo much of your hard work (your “sunk cost”). The compassionate approach—rather than one rooted in fear of failure—is to manage the injury based on what would realistically serve you best now.
So instead of continuing to run on an injured foot and masking the pain with pills, you take up pool running and cycling to maintain your cardiovascular fitness without exacerbating the injury and allowing your body to properly heal.
4. Self-compassion helps you…enjoy working out more.
Having fun is a key component to working out consistently. Rather than making exercise another chore or obligation, give yourself permission to skip workouts or change plans as other things come up, and you’ll feel more gratitude and enjoyment for the workouts you do.
In a 2014 study published in Marketing Letters, researchers asked a group of adult women to walk for 30 minutes, treating it as exercise and monitoring their exertion level. They asked a second group of adult women to walk for same duration but while listening to music and enjoying the experience. Both groups walked the same amount of time and at the same pace, but only those in the first group felt grumpy and fatigued afterward. The grumpy walkers then felt justified in rewarding themselves with soda and unhealthy foods, whereas those who had been instructed to enjoy the walk made healthier food choices. Self-compassion helps you ditch the guilt and make your exercise (not cookies!) a rewarding part of your daily routine.