How to Regain Your Gym Flow & Get Back Into Your Exercise Routine
One out of four adults say that they have stopped exercising or exercised less frequently in the past year. That's according to a global study published in the Frontiers of Psychology journal, which analyzed 13,696 adults in 18 countries. And among those who still exercised, approximately a third of them said that they either shortened their workouts or hit their exercises with less intensity than before.
If this sounds a little too familiar to you, don't sweat it. Rather, do sweat it. You can reboot your workout motivation and reset your fitness goals today, no matter the length of time you've spent away from the gym — whether it's been weeks, months, or even years — or your reasons for taking a break (e.g., pandemic lockdowns, an injury, burnout, or just feeling unmotivated).
It's time to regain your gym flow and get back into the proverbial saddle.
Returning to the Gym? Here are 4 Steps to Restart Your Exercise Routine
Step 1: Reevaluate Your Workout Motivation and Set the Right Goal
A lot might have changed in your life, your habits, and your goals since the time since you stepped foot in the gym. Now is the perfect opportunity to reevaluate your exercise objectives and consider why you want to work out again. Setting up the right goals before you pull on your gym shoes is the foundation for re-establishing your routine and ensuring your motivation doesn't die the minute that you roll into the gym parking lot.
According to research reported by psychologist and brain science researcher Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D., studies have found there are two main reasons why people exercise:
- Intrinsic motivation: Social connection and relationships, better health and wellness, or improving your physical skills or capabilities.
- Extrinsic motivation: Social recognition or body image.
She notes that the former, which are goals driven by your own internal desires, have far more motivational force and lasting power than the latter, which are goals created from external pressure (i.e., social media, magazine covers, etc.).
Think about all the benefits that fitness and exercise can bring to your life, and set a goal that's centered around improving your life and bolstering your skills. For example:
- "I want more energy and endurance to keep up with my kids."
- "I want to be stronger and more flexible so I can live the life I want to live."
- "I want to be a better swimmer/biker/cyclist/etc."
- "I want to lose weight so that I don't have to take so many medications."
Step 2: Give Yourself Permission to Ease Into Your New Gym Flow
Your gym might have one of those cliched posters that read: "Go hard or go home." But if you've been home for the past few months (or years), don't go too hard just yet.
A Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine study found that after a two-week break from the gym, it took people approximately six weeks to hit their previous strength and endurance benchmarks. Hitting the weights or the treadmill with the same weight load or intensity as you used to use may lead to strains, sprains, and other injuries.
As a general rule:
- Start your old workout routine at 30% to 50% of the duration, intensity, or weight load that you were previously doing before you took a break.
- Increase it by 15% to 20% each week.
- Listen to your body. Everyone is different. If you're feeling very sore, or you're finding it's taking you more than a couple of days to recover from your previous workout, reduce how quickly you're ramping up. For some people who've been out of the gym for months, they might only increase their workout intensity by 10% every couple of weeks.
Step 3: Remember to Focus on Only One Change at a Time
When you're getting back to your gym routine, you might feel inspired to truly shake things up. Maybe you decide to try a completely new workout philosophy, or a new diet, or a new biohacking regimen.
However, Harvard Medical School warns that when it comes to creating long-lasting behavior change and routine, it's important to focus on just one change or one goal at a time. Trying to change too many things at once can overwhelm your brain, decrease your motivation, and create so-called "change fatigue."
Once you've comfortably back in your gym routine, you can circle back to all of the other exciting fitness and diet improvements you may want to try.
Step 4: Make Your New Gym Routine as Easy as Possible
When you stopped your gym routine, you created a new routine: Not going to the gym. You swapped out your exercise habit for a sedentary habit.
"When you don’t exercise...you develop a habit of low physical activity," explains psychologist Brad Stennerson, Ph.D., in a column for Psychology Today magazine. "Deviating from any habit feels weird. It’s how you’re wired. [...] That’s why you give up so easily. It feels right to slide back into your non-moving rut because that’s the prevailing habit. Changing a habit takes time."
Stennerson says it takes six weeks to reform and recommit to your old gym routine and kick your old habit of not exercising. During this transitionary period, you need to make it far easier to fall back into your gym flow than it is to fall back into your old sedentary routine.
These strategies may help:
- Treat your gym routine as a "must-do," not a "nice-to-have." Schedule it into your calendar like you would an important work meeting.
- Eliminate barriers. It's easy to skip the gym ("Just this once," you might swear to yourself) when you're busy or stressed. Consider your most common excuses, then proactively get ahead of them. For example, you might pre-pack your gym bag and keep it in your car so you don't go home to grab your stuff and get caught up in housework or television.
- Make yourself accountable to others. A little peer pressure can help you to stay committed. Tell a friend about your plan to work out again. Even posting about your goals on social media can help, reports new psychological research.
- Take baby steps. It's better to go to the gym for 10 minutes than not at all. You may find that once you're in the gym and moving your body, your mental blocks and excuses dissipate.
Finally, don't give up if you miss a workout or find yourself not building up your stamina or strength as quickly as you expected. Your fitness is a journey. You might have taken a detour over the past few weeks or months, but you're back on the road again. Congratulate yourself for that, and don't let a momentary speed bump derail you again.
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