For many of us, we got into working out as a means of relieving stress. The adrenaline rush and endorphins flowing after a great workout made us forget about every worry we had before we entered the gym that day. We left the gym feeling a sense of clarity and pride. We went about our days with a better attitude and a better sense of self. We realized that any negative emotions we had could be relieved with a good gym session. From that moment on, we were hooked.
Until one day…
Eventually the excitement and spike of adrenaline starts to fade with every consecutive workout. The act of showing up and getting the session done is more out of habit than it is out of pure excitement. You start to go through the motions just to “get it done”. Each workout feels less and less like the first one, like there’s something missing… umf. Your workouts just don’t have the same umf as they once did.
Out of habit, you continue to show up…
Overtime, working out starts to feel like a chore. The thing you used to look forward to most in your day is becoming something nagging you in the back of your mind. You show up to your sessions feeling slightly anxious and annoyed. You wish you could just fast forward time and be done with it for the day.
Your source of stress relief has now become a stress inducer.
The thought of having to workout that day mentally wears you out from the moment you wake up. You can’t wait to get it over with only so that anxious feeling will subside for a few hours. Your workouts are taking you twice as long as they once did because you’re dragging your feet and procrastinating in between every set. You come out of every session feeling worse about yourself.
I’d bet almost all fitness-enthusiasts experience this to some degree at some point in their training careers. Personally, I emerged myself in the fitness lifestyle suddenly and rapidly, and almost instantly became obsessed with it. Working out gave me a sense of pride and confidence in myself that I had never experienced before. I found myself thinking about my next session in the middle of class and dreaming about doing push-ups. I woke up every morning excited to make my workout a priority.
About a year & a half into my journey with fitness, I noticed a shift in mindset. I started to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform a certain way in the gym. If I didn’t hit x weight for x reps, it was a failed workout. I began making the association that I wasn’t worthy of feeling happy or confident if my workout didn’t beat my previous one. These thoughts started to wear me down mentally and, within a few months, my body started to fight against me. Not only did I stop getting stronger, but I started getting weaker. Every workout made me feel like I had taken a beating both physically and mentally. I was dreading the gym every single day. Panic attacks and uncontrollable feats of crying at the gym became a regular occurrence. Sometimes I would spend upwards of 4 hours in the gym forcing myself to go through the motions because I couldn’t bear to live with my own thoughts had I given up and went home that day. My relationship with exercise quickly became the most toxic thing in my life.
Am I saying everyone will develop an extremely unhealthy relationship with exercise? Not at all. However, if you resonate at all with the feelings described above, I want you to know you’re not alone. It can be super frustrating to realize something you once loved now brings you so much stress and unhappiness. I want you to know that these phases, to varying degrees, are totally normal. For anyone making this fitness thing a lifestyle, your motivation to and feelings towards working out will ebb and flow.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this happens, but there are a few reasonable culprits. The biggest one (and the one that resonates with me the most) is that you’re doing too much. You’re beating your body down too hard in the gym and not allowing it to recover. Even if you feel fine at first, the fatigue will accumulate and eventually slap you in the face. For some people, that slap comes in the form of an injury. For others, the effects are primarily mental and emotional. You cannot separate your physical body from your mental state – your body can absolutely reflect a physical problem via your mentality and your emotional status (especially if you’re stubborn and don’t listen to your body’s physical signs). If you’re suspicious of this being the case for you, try backing off your total training volume for at least a week. You can do this by shortening workout time, training less days, and/or using less weight for less sets and reps.
If you’re pretty confident that the training volume you’re doing is reasonable, assess other stressors in your life. Stress is stress is stress; your body can only handle a certain amount of it at a time. Family problems, financial instability, starting a new job, losing your job, traffic… it all adds up and will accumulate if not taken care of sufficiently. Even if working out helped you relieve stress in the short-term, the act of putting your body through even a semi-strenuous physical activity is a stressor in itself. Stress happens to everyone and periods of high-stress are hard to prepare for. In such a case, you can try experimenting with less physically demanding means of stress relief like meditating, slow yoga, journaling and positive affirmations. In periods of very high life-related stress, it’s also a good idea to tone down the intensity of your workouts in the meantime. That doesn’t have to mean stopping altogether, but working within a limit and not purposely trying to push limits in the gym for the time being.
If you’ve already committed to this lifestyle, it can be scary to purposely back off. You may try to convince yourself you need to “persevere” and continue to push yourself through this sticky time. Coming from someone who tried to ignore my feelings for an entire year, I can promise you it likely won’t get better… it’ll actually get worse. Only once I forced myself to take my stubborn pants off and actually attempt focusing on recovery and removing physical expectations I had set for myself did I start to get my spark back.
It’s okay to listen to your body. It’s okay to workout less than you’re used to. It’s okay to focus on other aspects of your life outside of fitness. After all, fitness should be included in your lifestyle… fitness shouldn’t be your whole life.