How Do You Motivate Yourself to Exercise?

Written by Bonnie Sanders Polin, PhD

Everyone with diabetes (type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes) is aware of this:  we must exercise to stay healthy.  However, it can be difficult to find the motivation to do it, even if you know it'll help with your blood glucose control and reduce your risk of developing long-term complications. In this article, I'll talk about some of those barriers to motivation and how to overcome them so that you can get out there and exercise.

I hear a lot from people that it's hard to exercise.   I know that there are personal factors, program factors, and environmental factors that influence decisions about exercise and keeping healthy.  Let's take a look at these factors and the thoughts we need to modify so that we can begin and continue a program.

Motivating yourself or your loved one to exercise has many advantages, one of which is the ability to become motivated in other parts of your life. The fire in your belly as you get better at your exercise will generalize and you'll be able to take a chance at something new.

That new idea may actually come true; you will take a chance on yourself and best of all you may become healthier so that all of those ideas will be done by a person who cares for him or herself.

We all know that success is a dangerous thing to some people. They fight an inner battle that pits a wish for success against resistance, which is based on the thought that old failures will repeat themselves and who wants to fail?

We're hoping that by the time you finish this article that the part of you that knows how important exercise is to your health will win out in this battle.  When that happens and you can keep on with an exercise program, you are a success even if have set backs along the way.

No one here would suggest that you sit down and ask anyone each one of these questions (or have someone ask you all these questions). I know of no one who has had difficulty keeping up with their total health plan that would stand for that type of exercise. Do try to get an idea of the answers even if you don't ask each question so that you can talk about how to help that motivation get moving.

Personal Factors
Find out the person's feelings about the value of exercise.

This is important because although someone may say that their doctor has told them to exercise, they do not buy into the reasons or benefits of doing so.

We all have a friend or two who are hale and hearty and have never bent down to pick up a napkin let alone put on cross trainers to take a walk. The rationale is that "so and so has the same medical problems and never exercises and his doctor doesn't harp at them."  Do you have a history of the types of exercises this person has done and their experiences?

Breaking a leg the first time you ski could well make one cautious about deep snow or icy slopes. Are you asking someone to start a program which they think can hurt them or which is very uncomfortable? Maybe slow starts are better than no starts.

Make a mental list about the physical abilities of the person you are talking with and make sure that they see their abilities in a realistic light. The only thing worse than someone who is fit believing that they are unable to do anything, is the person who is out of shape and who thinks running a marathon is OK.

Here's a question to actually ask. It is an ice breaker and is necessary for your knowledge and for your loved one to examine. That most important question is, "Are you motivated to change and begin to exercise and stay with a program?"

If someone has little motivation, then you may want to wait and sow the seeds of self-help over a period of time. Here, mentoring, articles, a talk with friends, a medical examination, etc., may start the motivation process.

If, on the other hand, the person is very motivated and still not exercising, then the answer may have to do with the exercise program proposed or your environment. Keep reading.

Has the person figured out how to overcome the typical barriers to exercise such as transportation, dealing with diabetes before, during and after exercise, and equipment? Feeling in charge and safe will certainly help.

You will never know how many people at our diabetes clinic have heard horror stories about diabetes, exercise, and hypoglycemia. None of these stories gives confidence. We all know that as the story gets retold, it may become more outlandish and exaggerated, so "just the facts" can be a great help. I have frequently given biographies or articles about great athletes who have diabetes to patients. These range from golfers and tennis pros to football giants.

Exercise Program Problems
Ask about the convenience of the place where the exercise program is. We all know that driving 45 minutes to a gym gets very old very fast.

Ask if the program is at a time that is convenient. Again, it's difficult to stay with a program when you have to be at work, driving car pool, taking care of your mother or are overwhelmed by other issues of life. Sometimes, the answer is simple. You find a place that's close to work, close to home, close to school, etc. which has flexible hours and many classes, as well as personal trainers if needed.

Has the person in question chosen a sport that is just plain too time consuming to prepare for and do, too expensive, or too exhausting?

On the other hand, has the person decided to do something that is too easy, with little or no aerobics or strengthening involved? I remember my father saying that using the golf cart at his country club made for great exercise. He was in his 80s at the time and really did exercise every morning rigorously so I did not argue the point, but his golf was fun for the grandkids to watch, especially when his shots did not go well, but it was of little aerobic value.

Is this person only doing one exercise? To tell the truth, we all get bored doing the same thing every morning at the same time. Why not plan for variety? The same gym may give aerobic classes from spin to step as well as personal training on the weight machines and yoga.

All are valuable and all will keep a person from overdoing one thing.

In the summer, why not switch to outdoor sports such as tennis, swimming, diving, water polo, or horseback riding? Just make sure the person with diabetes is cleared medically and knows how to care for him/herself while exercising. Exercise should be done with others, not alone.

Place Factors
Does this person really like the facility? I know, sometimes we join clubs because of high pressure and we wind up having a membership someplace that is inappropriate for us.

When we were first married, someone sold me a membership in one of those clubs that advertise all day long on TV. They make money knowing that a large percentage of members will not use the club. They were right. I went once and went back to running.

If you join a club, look at the locker room carefully as well as at the facilities. Check the staff. A diabetic may need help. Ask what process they have in writing for staff. Ask to speak to a random staff member or two. Fire out some pointed questions about diabetes. If you get an empty stare or a long answer saying nothing, leave.

Get ready to exercise. If you have special clothes, make sure they are washed and ready to go. If you have a gym bag, make sure it's packed. Have diabetic supplies, snacks and anything else you need together with your equipment and clothes. No one wants to pack things as they are walking out the door.

If people exercise a lot, we suggest having more than one glucose monitor so you can have one in your bag. 

Has this person too many built-in excuses to make any program work? If so, why? By this I mean if the spring program is outside, what can be substituted in the rain? If it's winter, what can be done during a snow storm? If the answer is that a lot of sleeping will be done, then go back and look at the answers to some others of these questions to find out where else we need to look at motivation.

We're almost done with these questions, but this one is very important. Does this person have a support system to keep up the motivation? I often talk about getting an exercise partner because it makes exercise more fun (and it's safer for people with diabetes to have someone with them during exercise).  By the way, if you're the partner in life, why not become a partner in exercise? I know my husband would not exercise if I were not the Exercise Leader of our house.

Now that you think you have some answers, let's get started by planning how to keep someone motivated.

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