This post is about taking care of your health and fitness when you feel like you have nothing left in you.
When you feel like your tank is empty and it doesn’t seem like much point, like there are more important things, or when it seems easier to destroy a pint of ice cream and distract yourself with some Netflix.
We've all been there. It's just a fact of life. These things happen.
Here's how to deal with it. Here's how to continue to stay healthy and fit when you feel emotionally exhausted.
The whole theme of this post is “when you’re emotionally exhausted”. So energy is a key theme. It basically comes down to prioritizing things that are important, and ditching unnecessary things that drain you further. Let’s go into how you actually implement this concept.
Remove energy sinks
Pay attention to what drains you. And more importantly, look for the things that drain energy but aren’t really necessary.
For me, this is is actively following the news. With exception of certain developments, knowing more about current events doesn’t further my ability to make informed decisions. It only makes me pissed off, overwhelmed, and subsequently incapacitated from creating the impact I want to create.
Don’t get me wrong, I think pessimism gets an undeserved bad reputation from the #positivevibesonly crowd -- the human experience is about the breadth of human emotions.
Not letting yourself feel the “bad” emotions is a good way to fuck up your emotional health. This was demonstrated wonderfully in Inside Out.
Besides, life isn’t only positive! We all experience loss, heartbreak, loneliness, anger, sadness, frustration etc. These are all parts of the human experience, and we’ll all be better off if we let ourselves feel those things.
And let’s face it. People are shitty sometimes. The world is full of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and oppression in all its forms. Human history is one of people being shitty to each other, and other people overcoming the adversity of said people being shitty.
That said, your time and energy is limited. It’s important to allocate energy in line with your priorities, goals, and values.
To use my 1:1 online coaching client John as an example, he found social media was really messing with his mood, energy, and consequently, his ability to attack his goals. So he cut it out. Then, his mood and energy both increased. He became more productive at work, more patient in his relationships, and better able to help the people he cares about when they need it.
To reiterate, I’m not saying to shelter yourself in a false bubble of positivity by cutting out anything remotely negative. Some things that take energy will be worth it to you.
The point is to pay attention to your energy levels. Make your priorities line up with where you give energy. And if something takes a disproportionate amount of energy compared to what it gives, it’s taking energy away from more important things. If you find something that only takes, scrap it.
Expose yourself to things that give you energy
Who or what makes your heart soar? What kind of people, media, books, music, etc. make you feel excited, motivated, and energized?
To the extent possible, expose yourself to things that empower you.
Read. Make art. Have meaningful conversations with friends. Go on a walk in nature.
Make time for pursuits that make you feel balanced and grounded.
This is the other side to the prior section’s coin. Make space by deleting energy sinks, then add the the important stuff.
Focus on what you can control. Let go of what you can’t
Worrying about things you have no power over is a good way to wear yourself down.
Why is this a problem? Because it detracts energy from acting on the things you actually do have control over.
There’s a lot you can’t control. Don’t waste energy on it. Instead, focus on what you can control and what you’re willing to control.
Basically, if you can’t control something, or are unwilling to act to change the situation, move on.
Check the graphic below as a guide:
Don’t skimp out on sleep. Being well rested makes tough situations less tough. If you don’t get much sleep now, you’ll be astonished with how much better you feel, how much more emotionally resilient, stable, and capable you feel once you prioritize getting 7-10 hours per night.
You won’t fully realize how much chronic lack of sleep impacts your mood and general ability to function until you start getting good sleep.
You might think sleep is “wasting time” you could be getting stuff done, but if you get good sleep I guarantee you’ll be a more focused version of yourself who can get more done in less time.
Sleep isn’t weakness. It’s absolutely necessary for physical and mental health.
Remember why you’re doing this
Ultimately it’s important you remember why fitness, however you define it, is important to you in the first place. Knowing the root reasons for why you want to be in shape can help drive you to action when you’d rather be doing literally anything else.
Keep in mind why being fit is important to you. And whenever you feel like falling back into old habits, remind yourself of these root motivations.
Meet yourself where you’re at
Something is always better than nothing. If that means doing half your workout or skipping the exercises you don’t like, so be it.
You don’t need to follow your program perfectly to stay in shape. You just need to stay active in some capacity. You simply need to keep doing anything that maintains momentum and not quit when things get tough.
Besides, you don’t actually need to do that much to maintain strength and muscle mass. One strength training session a week can do wonders for maintaining strength and muscle. With the right program you can even make strength gains working out twice a week.
More importantly, learning how to adapt to where you are in a given moment is often what distinguishes success from failure. Because life will continue to challenge you, and learning to adapt your fitness to those challenges is a necessary skill for lasting results.
My online coaching client John again provides a stellar example of this. Earlier this year, he experienced an unrelenting sequence of family emergencies that required not only his energy but tons of travel.
So how did he handle this to stay fit?
He constantly adapted his plan to circumstances and his own mental state. He adjusted. If he couldn’t follow plan A, he followed plan B. And if he couldn’t follow plan B, he followed plan C or D etc.
Point is, he looked at the situation and decided what action he could realistically take while still handling his obligations. This tactic meant he took consistent action. His fitness wasn’t on and off -- it was more like a dimmer switch.
The alternative to what John did being what most people do: attack their fitness goals hard when life is great, then abandon them the minute life gets messy.
This doesn’t work because life is inherently messy.
A better option is to focus on constantly moving forward, but slow down when necessary. Turn down the dimmer a bit.
Turning down the dimmer switch when he didn’t have enough time or energy to turn up the dimmer switch meant he could contribute to a foundation of healthy habits regardless of external circumstances. His success didn’t depend on external circumstances.
Because of his consistency and resourcefulness he built a relationship with fitness he wanted from the beginning. The gym is now something he looks forward to, something that builds him up, gives him energy, and makes him feel confident.
By consistently adjusting his plan to whatever was going on in his personal and work life, he successfully integrated fitness into his lifestyle long term. No more 2 week bursts of exercise in between long hiatuses. He got the results he was looking for and more.
Sometimes this meant, doing a few push-ups in the morning. Sometimes this meant doing half the reps from his workout. Sometimes this meant trying to walk more. Sometimes this meant doing really well with portion control because that was literally the only thing he had control of.
The point is this:
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of better.
Act in whatever capacity you can. Pick something that doesn’t feel daunting and crush it.
Maybe the thought of a full workout makes the couch seem like a damn good option, but what if you just had to do 1 set of everything with half the weight you normally use? Would that make it mentally easier to get to the gym?
Scale down your workout, or whatever healthy habit your working on, so it becomes realistic for what is happening now.
For example, maybe in the best of times, working out 3 times a week for an hour is realistic.
But what about in the worst of times?
Maybe you’ll need to trim it down to 2 times a week for half an hour -- anything more seems daunting to the point where it discourages you from going.
Meet yourself where you’re at. Assess your mental state and pick something realistic for you RIGHT NOW to stick to. Something that seems so easy there’s no reason NOT to do it.
You’ll be glad you did.
Realize maintenance is progress
Being able to maintain your fitness when it’s difficult to do so is progress.
Even if you’re not losing weight, or adding any new healthy habits, maintaining previously built healthy behaviors still counts as progress.
If you normally workout 3 times a week, working out once or twice a week should still be celebrated because action = progress.
Every time you act, you contribute momentum towards something.
Each time you repeat a healthy habit, you reinforce the habit. Because the longer you’ve been doing something the more habitual that something becomes. A habit, healthy or unhealthy, will be more stubborn after 10 years than after 5.
So each action you take should be celebrated, even if it seems insignificant to you. Because those small victories add up.
It’s important to give yourself credit for what you’ve done well because this builds your confidence in your ability to do fitnessy things.
If you feel like you’re incapable of achieving a goal, you’ll be less inclined to act in line with that goal.
On the other hand, if you feel like you can achieve a goal, you’ll put in a lot more effort, because you believe your hard work won’t be wasted. You’ll feel more motivated.
This is why much of my online health and fitness coaching focuses on building up my client’s confidence in tackling their goals. Because it keeps them motivated so they become fitter, healthier versions of themselves more quickly.
A simple way to encourage yourself to celebrate your victories is to ask yourself this simple question at least once a day:
What’s something I’ve done well today?
To reiterate from the last section, what separates the successful from those who quit is the honing the skill of maintaining progress under less than ideal circumstances.
Give yourself credit for every small victory. Even it seems like you’ve taken a step back, as long as you’re not giving up when things get tough, you’re moving forward.
And that’s the point of this whole post:
Staying in shape when you feel like you have nothing left in you is a different animal than staying in shape when everything is peachy.
You’ll need to reorient yourself.
- How much effort is sustainable for a given set of circumstances?
- What are some things you could do even if you feel like your life and/or the world is falling apart in front of you?
- How can you make time and energy for the things that are the most important?
It’s OK to feel exhausted. It’s OK to not feel like going to the gym. It’s all OK. There ARE more important things than fitness. And there’s A LOT going on right now.
What I’m hoping you take away from this post is how to not abandon your goals when you’re feeling emotionally zapped. Because giving up on your fitness goals will only exacerbate this feeling and make you feel even more depleted.
If you follow the tips outlined in this blog, you’ll build a more emotionally and physically resilient version of yourself by continuing to act when you don’t feel like it.
Remember, fitness doesn’t need to consume every aspect of your life to improve it.
The trick is to find your own version of balance where the energy you put into fitness is dwarfed by the energy, confidence, and empowerment you get from it.