Fitness Funks Get More Dangerous As We Age: How to Combat Them

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It happens to everyone. But it’s a bigger deal for older guys like us: the fitness funk.

Earlier this year, I fell into one. I struggled with motivation for workouts. Especially strength training and swimming, which are more “boring” for me than running or yoga. Unusually for me, I completely blew off some workout days. I kept thinking, “tomorrow I’m getting back on schedule.”

I felt disgusted with myself. But that didn’t help turn things around. It just made the funk feel worse as it was happening.

The good news: I broke out of this funk after a few weeks (more on that in a moment).

The bad news: I also slipped into a writing funk for OlderBeast. I don’t think this was coincidence. When I’m off my physical game, I quickly feel challenges in other areas including my productivity and my sense of well-being and optimism.

And for me, this productivity (writing) funk was much harder to break through than the fitness one. So even though fitness hasn’t been the problem recently, I’ve been thinking about and discussing with others a question that’s so important in our quest for maximum practical lifelong fitness…

In general, in whatever life sphere it happens, what permits and perpetuates a funk? And what can we do about it – especially for fitness funks which have both immediate and longer-term consequences?

Anatomy of a Funk

For you, does the feeling and behavior pattern of being in a funk take this shape?

1. It hits where your endeavors are discretionary or at least non-urgent – something you don’t have to do, at least not today.

2. It hits hardest where self-motivation is the primary impetus. No one else makes me, pays me to, or even firmly expects me to go for a run this morning…or write this OlderBeast article.

But doesn’t it seem like in business, personal life and body-and-soul health alike, mountains of our own making are the most important and rewarding to climb? And these are the kind most vulnerable to a funk, man.

3. It’s less about under-performing on an activity and more about totally abdicating planned effort that day. They say “80% of success is showing up.” When we’re in one of these funks, we’re not showing up.

4. So things slip, then they slip some more. Eventually, the self-discipline failures themselves become an extender of the funk. As in “oh man, I haven’t run (or written) in so long now…I dread the difficulty/pain/embarrassment/indignity of resuming.”

My fitness funk – examined

This brings us back to my fitness funk earlier this year.

On a typical day I had a “plan” to workout (say, a strength workout at 5:30 pm). Then as the day wore on, I started “negotiating” with myself. Maybe I’ll start at 6 pm instead, because [blah blah blah]. Then 6 pm would come along and I’d think something like “I’ll just answer this one email, then get started.”

And finally, lo and behold, it had “gotten too late” (as if this happened to me, not by me). The time-math said I couldn’t get my workout in before dinner. Or the same experience played out with a morning workout. Somehow I would  fritter away time over coffee or looking at the news so I’d run out of time to exercise before business hours.

I think at some level I started to know I wasn’t going to do the workout even while I was still “officially” planning to do it in the organized part of my mind. Each time this happened, I got a little more accustomed to and (apparently) willing to tolerate this behavior in myself. (Behavior which we’d think unacceptable in an employee, services provider, or even high school student).

In our hyper-busy daily lives with work, family, everything – allowing ourselves this kind of slippery-slope wiggling is the kiss of death, brother. There’s always some “reason” to skip it today.

The Way Out

One time-tested way to power through motivational troughs is to be flexible. Don’t make fitness a binary choice (avoid “I’m going to swim a mile now or else sit around and eat potato chips”). Do an easier workout, do a different one, do a new one. Just do something. This has been an occasional theme at OlderBeast (see this on easy workouts; or this on the powerful benefits of the simplest exercise, walking). 

But this principle alone may not be enough. In the type of funk I’m describing, I’ve come to realize there’s a psychological tactic you might need to use, too. I’m talking about “raising the stakes” in your mind.

What stakes?

The small view of stakes is that blowing off an evening run foregoes maybe a 300-700 calorie burn and some small, hard-to-know degree of cardio conditioning. Not a huge deal to miss out on this once in a while.

But here’s the bigger view, the psychological reorientation on this. Every time I blow off a planned workout, I’m setting an internal precedent that this is OK. I’m digging a mental groove in a dangerous direction, away from the type of self-mastery that will help me maintain body-and-soul health for decades to come.

Instead, what happens if I elevate my understanding of this threat…if I make a planned workout a key test of “showing up” for myself, my ability to gracefully and manfully age, to stay vital? What if I make it a big $%!@# deal in my mind that if I said I’m going to do some kind of workout, I will do something?

Now, put this together with the flexibility doctrine (something easier, something different, just something), and maybe I can get back to establishing positive precedents. As in, “I’ve set my intention to be healthy today, and as a matter of extreme importance, I will. I’ll be flexible, but I will NOT let myself down.”

#   #   #

Yeah, every now and again you’ll have a legitimate physical reason to skip a planned workout day. Or there might be real, unexpected work or family demands. But so often, the battle to keep our physical vitality and related tranquility-of-spirit – as a platform for everything else we want to accomplish in life – is fought vs. psychological foes.

Research shows we’re not as over-the-hill as we might think, fitness-wise. But our ability to get back in shape after an exercise lapse is certainly lower than it used to be. So when a funk threatens to lay its tentacles on you, “raise the stakes” in your fight against it!

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There are a bunch of reasons why you might NOT work out today. Some are good, and many are not-so-good. Of all possible reasons, the one I really hate works like this.

1. You plan to work out that day. Then as the planned time nears, you start to feel a physical and/or mental sluggishness. Nothing dramatic, but you just don’t feel like working out. You start to flirt with the idea of taking the day off, considering various possible justifications.

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This ever happen to you?  If so, you just fell victim to That Sluggish Feeling (“TSF”).  

I’ve devised a new response to TSF when it strikes. I don’t seek to move directly from sluggishness to exercise. Instead, I do a short, easy “bridge” activity in-between, to change my energy and get me into a better frame-of-mind to decide if I’m really, intentionally going to skip that workout. Here’s how it works.

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