How I Motivated Myself To Exercise When It Felt Impossible

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
work out motivation pictures | before and after
Rita Templeton

Let me start this off by clarifying one important thing: I’m just a normal person who exercises. I’m no fitness fanatic. You won’t find me at a 5 a.m. boot camp class (because, sleeping) or Instagramming pictures of a daily kale and protein powder smoothie (because, yuck).

The only “burpee” I do is after a big meal. And if I’m being really honest, people who do stuff like that — whose intention is to be motivational — actually have the opposite effect on me. They make me feel inadequate — like I’m never going to have that kind of drive and dedication and may as well give up now and sprawl out on the couch with a pint of ice cream and some Netflix.

So don’t worry. I’m not here to go all Maria Kang and tell you that you’re not exercising because you’re a lazy piece of crap. Nobody needs to hear that, especially someone who’s having trouble mustering the motivation to work out at all. If you’re reading this, well, that’s probably you. And that’s okay, because it was me too.

After popping out three kids in five years (and, all right, enjoying all the desserts), my body was a sluggish wasteland. For the first time in my life, I was within spitting distance of 300 pounds. Miserably depressed, I felt swamped in flesh. So I isolated myself, skipping events where I might see someone who would think, Damn, she’s gained a lot of weight. I used my kids as an excuse to stay home (which was pretty legit, because we all know how hard it is to do anything with toddlers), but the real reason was that I was deeply ashamed of the way I looked.

Although I read all the body positive “love yourself as-is” articles I could get my hands on in an effort to be happy with who I was, I just couldn’t accept the fact that I had gotten this way. But as unhappy as I was, the thought of actually doing something about it was so overwhelming that I was paralyzed. It seemed like such an insurmountable goal — something for someone else to reach, someone with more determination, more grit than me. And so I cocooned myself in big shirts and stretchy pants and felt disgusting and guilty every time I spent another evening with my ass glued to the cushions.

My personal catalyst for change? I’d like to say I did it for my health or for my kids, but since I’m being honest: It was vanity. I knew my weight had gotten out of hand, but seeing as I avoided full-length mirrors like the plague, I didn’t know exactly how out of hand … until one day when my 4-year-old was recording random videos on my phone.

Little did I know that he had left it recording and propped it up on the counter, directly across from the refrigerator — the same refrigerator that, according to the video, I rummaged around in with my gut hanging unflatteringly out of a too-small tank top. I was confronted with raw, glaring footage of the reality I had tried so valiantly to ignore. Heart pounding, I forced myself to watch it. And I cried in defeat and disbelief.

It may have been an emotionally brutal wake-up call, but it served a purpose. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Yet there was still the not-so-little matter of the pesky 100-plus pounds I needed to lose. It wasn’t just going to fall off, and the mere thought of heaving myself up to exercise literally made me exhausted.

I recalled a Shel Silverstein poem I had loved as a child that said, “Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae, who ate a monstrous whale? She thought she could, she said she would, so she started in right at the tail.” The poem goes on to say that she ate the entire whale, bit by bit. It became my personal mantra for tackling anything that seems overwhelming: How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.

In the spirit of Melinda Mae, I started out with baby steps. I felt entirely too fat to go to the gym, so I began my quest at home. I walked around the house as much as I could. I tried to put more energy into doing my daily tasks. I danced with my babies and used them instead of weights to work out my arms. We had a Wii Fit, which cheerily chirped, “That’s obese!” every time it would weigh me. (Thanks a lot, asshole.) I bought a little aerobics step and stepped up and down on it while I watched TV. Gradually, I started to see a change, even though it still felt like I was using a chisel to chip away at an iceberg.

My neighbor had been trying to get me to come with her to a Zumba class at the gym for months, and finally I relented. The first time we went, I was the biggest girl in the class. I plastered myself nervously against the back wall, ready to bolt at the first sign of anyone snickering at the fat chick trying to work out. To my surprise, though, it was actually a lot of fun. Before I knew it, I had migrated up to the front row and was dancing around like I owned the place — rolls and all.

It wasn’t always a smooth road, but I kept at it, and over the course of two years, I took 112 pounds’ worth of bites out of that whale. Dropping that much weight gave me a new level of self-confidence that the overweight me never could have imagined.

I’ve had a few setbacks since then — like when my husband found me so irresistible that I got pregnant for the fourth time (surprise!) and gained 60 pounds — but I’ve learned to forgive myself for any bumps and climb back on the wagon, so to speak.

We’ve already discussed the fact that I am not one of “those people” when it comes to fitness and health. If left to my own devices, I would happily spend my days baking and eating and lounging around in a pillow fort. And I have to fight a constant battle not to let myself slack, or I totally will. It’s just how I am. So how do I keep myself motivated to exercise and maintain a healthy weight?

1. I move.

Seriously, movement begets movement. (It’s science. Remember learning about kinetic energy and Newton’s laws of motion?) On the days when I feel like doing absolutely nothing, I make myself get up and walk around for a while — because once you’re in motion, staying in motion becomes much, much easier.

2. I do stuff I like.

I loathe the elliptical machine. I’m not a runner. I’m terrible at sports. But I do love to dance, and go for walks, and take step aerobics classes. I loved Zumba so much that I became an instructor. You’ll never stick with activities you find boring, but there are so many different ways to move.

3. I wear a fitness tracker.

I take advantage of my super competitive streak and wear a gadget around my wrist that counts my daily steps, which really helps me in the motivation department. You can set personal goals or compete in challenges with other people to see who can get the most steps in.

4. I find ways to fit in exercise.

You don’t even have to do a workout to get a workout. Every time I pick up laundry or a toy (which is approximately 12,342 times per day), I squat instead of bending over. I do calf raises while I’m standing at the sink. I walk around with my stomach sucked in. I run around with my kids. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and clap my butt cheeks together. Don’t judge me.

5. I stay accountable.

As a group fitness instructor, my classes are counting on my presence, so I have to exercise at least three times a week. But if leading a class isn’t your bag, find a workout buddy and stick to a schedule together.

6. I make it a priority.

I don’t always have a fantastic time waxing my eyebrows or flossing my teeth, but they’re a necessary part of my self-care routine. And now, so is exercising. I wouldn’t let my teeth get plaque-y or my brows grow out until they resemble caterpillars, so I won’t let myself slack off on exercise either (at least not more than once or twice a week).

7. I motivate others.

This can be tricky, because like I said, not everybody wants to be motivated. But I find that if someone asks me to help them stay on track, it helps me too. I can’t very well tell them to adopt a healthy habit while I’m demonstrating the complete opposite.

It might seem like a foreign concept from where you’re standing. I totally get it. But trust me: Once you make exercise a regular part of your life, you’ll actually (gasp!) look forward to it.

I’m not gonna lie, there are still days when I’d rather get a bikini wax from a honey badger. But consistency is key, and even tiny steps are better than none. Whether you’re 10 pounds overweight or 200, believe this: You are so, so worth the effort.

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