On my parents’ mantelpiece, among the pictures of smiling grandchildren, lopsided graduation hats, old sports cars and a young soldier in smart uniform, is a picture of heroic athletic endeavour. In a little silver frame is a small blond boy in a white vest straining every sinew as he belts around the corner of a grassy athletic field, the parallel lines of the track marked out in white chalk stretching into the distance. He seems to be so far ahead of the pack that he’s almost on his own. He’s a champion in the making! Is the podium ready? Is that the music from Chariots of Fire you can hear?
The sad truth is that the little boy is me and I was so far off the pace everyone else that my dad was able to step out on the track to take the picture. “You were miles behind. It was almost as if you were running in slow motion,” he says now, with a laugh.
I must have been about eight years old. I remember the day so clearly. My teeth aren’t clenched with the exertion of the race, but because I was terrified I was about to burst into tears. My cheeks burned more than my thighs did, but all for nothing. I can still recall the journey home, gazing enviously at the brace of medals my brother had picked up – as he always did. “Speedy Pete” we called him.
Today, I have a shoebox full of medals tucked under my bed. My hidden vice is that even now, at the boyish age of 56, I like to get them out and jangle them across my palms, let them swing around my neck. But thinking back, it’s that little photo that captures one of the most inspiring moments of my sporting life. I didn’t give up. I was last, but I finished the race. And I’ve never stopped – until now.
Today, I still love running. Exercise plays a huge part in my life, both physically and mentally. Exertion keeps me ticking over and helps me tackle the mundanities of the daily grind. It keeps me up when I feel down. It’s the wellspring of my wellbeing. Running, swimming, cycling… I’m like a wild-eyed hamster on speed, spinning away on my various wheels, mostly getting nowhere. But through my perpetual motion I get to stay balanced in one place.
I’ve run dozens of marathons (38 to be precise – marathon runners never lose count, they always know), I’ve cycled the length and breadth of Britain (and France, and Spain, and a bit of Holland), I’ve never passed a body of water without an overwhelming urge to strip off and dive in… So why then, as the pandemic took hold of the country, did I come to a shuddering stop? As others got started, I ground to a halt. The parks filled with joggers, sitting rooms everywhere were a blur of squats and burpees, but I couldn’t be fagged to walk to the end of the garden and back. I want to know where my motivation went? And, more importantly, how can I get it back again?
On a cold and crisp morning in December I visit the deterministically named Max Sharp. I toy with asking him how I can “max up my sharpness”, but instead settle for an elbow bump and a hello. Sharp, 51, is the owner and manager of the FitFor gym and rehabilitation centre on Lordship Lane in south London. There’s an encouraging sign on the door as you go in that states: “Do Not Enter if you are showing any signs of Covid, Racism or Homophobia.” As you’d hope from a man who spends most of his time in and around gyms, Sharp looks fit, energetic and… well, sharp. He also seems very calm. He says his guilty secret is that he still plays competitive rugby every weekend, to the horror of his partner. “In the last few years, I’ve broken more bones on the pitch than you’d believe. But I just can’t stop,” he adds with a smile.
“Just before the first lockdown,” Sharp tells me, “gym membership across the country was at about 15%. That’s the highest it’s ever been. Then Lockdown One happened and there was a wave of enthusiasm with everyone running around, doing exercise videos at home, and getting outside for that one precious walk a day we were allowed. In Lockdown Two that exercise effect was less pronounced, but it was still there. Then Lockdown Three happened and everyone seemed to just give up. Sitting at home eating crisps and drinking beer was our top choice.”
Why did that happen? “I think it was because we all got progressively more pissed off, more housebound, more reclusive,” Sharp says, “and that then had an incipient effect on our general motivation. We all shrank. Our outlook shrank, too.”
That makes sense, but the big question, of course, is how can we put that into reverse? I’m hoping there is a large switch hidden deep inside our brains that can be flicked back on, like an old fuse box, and start us leaping off sofas again, swapping packets of biscuits for a ton of crunches.
Sharp shakes his head. Sadly that’s not the case. But there are things we can do to kickstart the motivation revolution. The lucky ones are already “gym evangelists,” he says. “These are the hardcore people who simply snap back.” They will get their exercise fix whatever. They will always find a way to get a session in. “But they are the minority – the challenge comes in encouraging the rest of us, who know we should exercise, who know there are clear health benefits, who want to come back and want to keep coming back, but just don’t.”
It’s a cliché of exercise that the “first step is the hardest”. That short walk from your front door to the park, or the gym, or the pool or the pitch can have more insurmountable obstacles on it than the most exhausting Tough Mudder event. Forget rope nets, hero walls and muddy trenches, putting away the shopping or tidying up the spice rack, even gazing out the window can pose a far greater hurdle to you pulling on your trainers and jogging round the block.
“The people who are hardest to motivate,” says Sharp, “are those who don’t have exercise in their experience or understanding, who dislike the very idea of exertion.” For them, it’s usually a life event that triggers an interest. It’s often a health warning, for them or a family member, that gets them going. But even a growing awareness that you are more out of breath at the top of the stairs or can’t dig the garden without putting your back out, can be enough to act as a wake-up call. If you hear that alarm, pay attention. It might just turn your life around. And from a public health standpoint, there is growing evidence that even doing light exercise, breaking up the sedentary time with a little walk, can be beneficial. It doesn’t always have to be about exertion.
In an unexpected way the pandemic gave many of us a chance to start again, just as the New Year always does. New Year, New You, and all that. Covid allowed us to adjust our routines and try a fresh approach. Motivation is a battle between life choices and time demands: the siren call of the pub vs the dread of another bums-and-tums class. During the various lockdowns we didn’t have much to do. The endless competition for our time stopped. There was a lot less either or. There was also a generalised feeling that we should try to get fit in the face of a health emergency to give ourselves a fighting chance.
But once the novelty of a new beginning grows stale, a very different type of motivation is needed to keep going. As we slowly returned to normality and the temptations of restaurants, clubs and cinemas came back into play, our newfound exercise evangelism got zipped back into a smelly gym bag and forgotten about.
Staying motivated about motivation is challenging. But one person knows a lot more about it than most. Joan Duda is professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of Birmingham. She’s spent the past 25 years working with all levels of athletes and performers, on the “determinants of adherence and optimal functioning in sport, exercise, and dance”. She is also the founder of Empowering Coaching, training programmes for coaches, instructors and parents regarding how to “create more optimally motivating environments and experiences”. I am confident that she will have much to tell me – a middle-aged man who has lost his mojo for plodding round the park.
“We know from our research,” Professor Duda tells me, “that if you participate for autonomous reasons – because you want to rather than because you feel you have to, then you are much more likely to maintain physical activity. It is also important to engage because the activity is enjoyable or helps you realise personally valued goals.”
Umm, does she mean it should be fun?
“That would help!” she says. “We are more likely to keep moving if we can find activities that are fun, interesting, perhaps personally challenging and we can see ourselves improving. And, of course, moving doesn’t need to be exhausting to be beneficial. Just getting outside and taking a walk with the dog or going on a bike ride with friends can bring on our inner smile and give us energy.”
When it comes to long-term motivation, Professor Duda and her fellow researchers are becoming increasingly aware that self-identity is also a big deciding factor. If you see yourself as a runner, an exerciser, a person who goes to gyms and leads a healthy life, it’s much easier to live up to those ideals. Instead of “doing” exercise, we need to think of ourselves as “being” a person who is physically active. It is part of who we are; part of our life. These “be” motives are less mentally exhausting than “should” motives. It all sounds rather Buddhist, but you need to embrace your “I am an active person” identity.
This identity can take years to develop. Sharp tells me that he has clients who come to his gym three or four times a week and still tell him “that they aren’t really people who go to the gym”.
I’m still not sure what’s happened to my motivation, though. I like exercise and I see myself as an “exerciser”. More than that, taking part in exercise has brought me so many happy experiences. It’s also the foundation of some of my most enduring and rewarding friendships. I understand the health benefits it brings. I know I’ll feel better if I go for a run, no matter what the weather or how bad the hangover. Joggers like to gee themselves up by saying things like: “You never regret a run!” and “Find your happy pace!” And that inner voice has always been enough to get me up and out there, but recently the urge to pull on my trainers has petered out. I can’t be bothered any more.
It’s a matter of routine, says Sharp. “When you are in the habit, your endocrine system kicks in. Your body gives you a dopamine hit that you soon get hooked on. It’s good stuff. If that goes, it’s hard to find it again. But it’s just a habit that you need to reacquire. And habits take time and a bit of grunt. We’ve been forced into a cosy state of hibernation over the past two years. We need to return to our old patterns.”
Sharp tells me in simple terms: “If you start again you’ll soon find your body’s hormonal system will reward you and it will become easier and easier to keep it up.”
Not for nothing is Nike’s slogan still: “Just do it.”
I decide to speak to an old friend named Graham. He’s a former county-lever runner and as far as I know has never taken a break from running. “That’s not true,” he tells me. “I often stop, or take breaks. Honestly, I just get bored of it sometimes. So I stop for a few days or a few weeks, but then something changes – it might be the weather or I’ll hear a piece of music – and I feel that itch to get back out there.”
“I’ve lost my itch,” I tell him mournfully. Graham laughs and points out that when he’s injured it’s awful to start with. “I feel frustrated and irritated.” But after a while he seems to be able to shut off his “running need”. The problem then “is relocating it when I’ve recovered and I’m back on my feet”.
I know what he means and realise that, over the years, perhaps unconsciously, I have done similar things. I’ll enter an event that forces me to train and so get back into my groove; or I’ll treat myself to new shoes and feel I should go running so they aren’t wasted. I’ll watch a trail race on YouTube and fantasise about running stride for stride with the best. And, inevitably, I’ll find that itch and that will get me going again.
Towards the end of December, my 20-year-old daughter sends me a snap from university. She is at Oxford and has discovered that the track across the road from her student accommodation is not just any track, it’s where Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile in 1954. And there it is, suddenly I feel a familiar tingle. I realise this is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.
The track is open to members who can also sign in a guest, so on a blustery afternoon the two of us wander across the grass to the famous 400m track. We decide to run a mile. We don’t bother setting a timer, no records are going to fall. We trot round laughing brightly under a grey sky. It’s fantastic. I feel my legs stretch and my chest start to rise and fall. It’s wonderful to be running on this fabled surface. But more importantly, it’s even better to hear the old familiar rumble of motivation in the distance…
Staying the course
Five ways to rediscover (and keep) your mojo
1. Do something you like Choose a sport or activity that suits you. It’s so much easier to do something you enjoy. Many gyms offer taster weeks where you can sample lots of classes. Do what you want to rather than what you think you should. You’ll be more likely to stick with a sport you like.
2. Good or bad doesn’t matter Don’t worry what level you are at. Think of yourself as a physically active person. Walk when you can; take the stairs not the lift. Choose the active option whenever you can.
3. Make it simple Get your kit ready beforehand. Choose a time of day that works for you. Find a friend or “gym buddy” to go with. When you finish, schedule the next session. No excuses.
4. Think about numbers Tracker apps and biofeedback tech can be motivational. Men in particular seem to do more exercise if they can track it.
5. Habit of a lifetime Make exercise part of your routine. Be an exerciser. You’ve got this!
Put yourself in the zone
Whether it’s cooking something delicious, being more playful or dancing on your own, experts from all walks of life explain how to maintain your motivation. By Michael Segalov
‘Find your sense of flow’: Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and OM’s agony aunt
It doesn’t matter if it’s your work or not, it is important to practise a skill. Not something you are necessarily good at but something that you get better at, something that takes skill and concentration but you can do it and almost automatically. In other words, we need to find something that gives us a sense of flow.
Flow is a concept that the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi came up with. It is a state achieved when you are absorbed in a task, so much so that the outside world seems to diminish. The trick is to balance your skill with the challenge of the task. If it’s too difficult you get frustrated, too easy and you get bored – to be in flow we need to find that sweet spot in the middle. Sometimes this is called being in “the zone”.
The activity that gets you there should be done for its own sake, because it feels good to do it. One of the concepts I use in my psychotherapy practice is that of internal and external referencing. When we internally reference we are noticing how what we are doing feels to us alone; when we externally reference, we are more concerned about how it appears to others. To be in flow, we need to internally reference, this is not about how results look to others but how we feel when we are absorbed in the activity itself.
Many things have brought me to a state of flow from learning to bake, to writing my column, or more recently, picking up where I left off at art school and developing my painting skills. The point of whatever activity you do is to enjoy it because of the satisfaction of focusing on the task in hand and being absorbed by it. Everyone could do with developing this type of enjoyment in their lives. It shouldn’t be a luxury.
‘Cooking for yourself can bind you together again’: Andi Oliver, chef
I used to have a very serious eating disorder, so I’m vigilant about food and language: the idea that some food is clean and other dirty is dangerous – it’s not a healthy way to think about our bodies, eliciting guilt. Too often when people want to eat “healthily”, they take out all the fun from food. Inevitably, it can’t be sustained. Instead, this January, reinvigorate how you eat by adding colour, and taking time.
If you wear bright colours, you feel uplifted. The same applies to eating food: eat browns and greys, you’ll feel that way. Colours bring a joyful vibrancy to your plate, and they’re also a great way to broaden your imagination, helping you identify what’s missing from a meal. A dash of orange gives you squashes, gourds and pumpkins; spinach and chard adds a burst of green.
I tend to make a five-day soup to see me through the week in winter – deeply flavoured broths which warm you inside and out. After Christmas, I take the bones and roast them to extract all the flavour, starting a stock by adding everything that’s going a little moody in the fridge. I have a bowl next to the cooker for all my vegetable peelings and chuck that in with garlic, aromatics and herbs. Take your time, let it simmer for hours. You’ll start to feel better as the smell flows around your home. This is your base for an entire week of meals.
Food shouldn’t be a place of flagellation, but jubilation. The nutrients shoot to your brain, the warmth will physically soothe you, and the act of making something beautiful will fill your soul once more. When the world feels cold and dark, you need to give yourself love and tenderness. Food is the perfect place to start.
‘Play is what makes life bearable’: Michael Rosen, author
Staying silly has always been important to me, it comes from my strong sense of the absurd. The way I see it, there really isn’t much reason why we’re on Earth. When we’re focused entirely on daily troubles and chores, we don’t notice it’s all ultimately pointless. So why not try to look for fun while it lasts?
It’s easy to be drawn into the doom of human existence. I have to remind myself that there’s no point to spending a life being totally miserable. You may as well enjoy it before we inevitably die. At times, that can be hard. I had Covid, and struggled afterwards. I knew the world before I became ill. I’d become accustomed to my senses of sound and sight. The virus damaged my eye and ear, and so the world changed, becoming fragmented. At first, it was hard not to think of the world as having been spoiled. Instead, I now focus on how strange it is that my perceptions have changed after so many decades. Deciphering the world is a whole new challenge, it needn’t be melancholic. It’s an adventure, a strange new game.
Play, for me, is what makes life bearable, when we’re walking, shopping, working, letting our minds run free and wild. For me, much of the time, that means playing with words. I discovered when my son died that I’m less bothered by things if I write about them. Some are straightforwardly lighthearted and jolly. But penning a poem about sadness or a sense of loss can leave you feeling better as well. It helps, laying things down on paper. I call it “unfolding”.
Everyone can do this, it doesn’t take expertise. Think of it as doodling, but with words. There’s a tyranny to education: learning to write frees you, but we’re restricted by being taught that formal sentences are all that’s worthwhile. Instead, scribble down fragments – think up half-lines mixed with song lyrics, lines from films, things people say. Don’t overthink it – it’s like talking with your pen. This process is a liberation for the mind.
‘It’s our primal right to move’: Tracy Anderson, fitness expert to the stars
It’s our primal right to move – that’s always my starting point with the people I work with. It doesn’t matter what your movement looks like; you don’t need to look like anyone else.
My mom has owned a ballet school for decades. When I was little, she wouldn’t let me into her class because she wanted me to learn to move in my own body before anyone else told me how to. Today, if you feel you don’t know how to move, find a place to be alone and turn on your music. However awkward or embarrassed you feel, don’t stop until something makes you want to move.
Exercise helps with depression and anxiety. From sex to energy, creativity to contentment, exercise is the fastest way to give your body a boost. Stepping into something that’s formalised will help you keep your efforts up. I sometimes think it helps to think of yourself as a child, but also the parent: would you let a kid you are responsible for sit around staring at screens and eating sugar all day? In which case, why let yourself?
‘Resilience comes from hard graft’: Joe Simpson, mountaineer and author
Resilience is a state of mind, not something you’re born with. Look at top athletes, who train hard and commit completely: if they didn’t give a toss, they’d fail. As a mountaineer, you realise this quickly – there’s no special quality you possess which helps you, but a skillset developed over many years. You know you can endure because you have specific knowledge and experience, technical knowhow and trust in your team.
Much of mountaineering results in failure – you’re at the mercy of the elements over which you have no control. The first thing a climber does after something goes wrong is analyse what happened. What went right? What didn’t? What can I learn? There’s no reason why we shouldn’t apply this logic to all walks of life. It might not sound sexy, but resilience comes from hard graft. Losing teaches us a huge amount.
And when something really bad happens, like when I had my own near-fatal fall in Peru in the 1980s, focusing on the small things was enough to keep me going. Right, I’d say to myself, let’s not die today. That was a victory enough. I’d repeat the same thing the next day. It’s when we’re up against it that we remember we are designed to survive.