June 3, 2023

Woman performing a lunge outdoors.

We all have them: those workouts that feel like you accomplished nothing. Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before, you couldn’t get your mind off work, or you tried something new that felt too challenging. Or maybe you were just cozy in your pjs, and Hulu seemed like a way better move (or, well, lack thereof) than exercise, and your workout felt not worth it. It’s frustrating to feel unmotivated, just as it is to feel like we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to in our workouts… and when we’re tired and sweaty and sad, it’s all too easy to forget that even bad workouts are hugely beneficial.

While it’s always important to rest when our bodies tell us to, lack of motivation is something else entirely—and it’s worth conquering because even the worst of our workouts come with great gains. Ahead, with the help of sports medicine physician Oluseun Olufade, we learn about what those benefits are, and how to motivate yourself to move when all you want to do is channel your inner couch potato.


The Benefits Don’t Change

The best possible news is that whether you had a lousy workout where you felt like you wasted your time or an amazing one that left you feeling capable of world domination, the benefits are the same—really. Feeling lazy or tired or just generally blah doesn’t mean your body actually got any less out of your movement experience.

Olufade tells us that “exercise, whether one is motivated to do it or not, has been shown to improve the immune system and treat chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It has also been shown to increase the number of growth hormones, especially after resistance exercises. Growth hormones help in building muscle mass.” Let’s look at these a little more in-depth look into these, as well as the emotional benefits.

Enhancing Immunity

Studies have shown that exercise strengthens our immune system. One such study notes: “The practice of physical activities strengthens the immune system, suggesting a benefit in the response to viral communicable diseases.”

Treating Disease

So many studies have proven that exercise helps with chronic illness, such as the ones Olufade referenced, that meta-study analyses have been conducted. They too agree that exercise can prevent and treat chronic conditions. One analysis states that “there appears to be a linear [relationship] between physical activity and health status, such that a further increase in physical activity and fitness will lead to additional improvements in health status.”

Improving Emotional Wellbeing and Sleep

It’s important to be physically healthy, but emotional health and good sleep are crucial, too—and exercise is great for those facets of life as well. “Exercise increases the levels of chemicals in our body such as dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin that make us feel good,” Olufade says. “With the release of these chemicals and the ability to perform better during the course of the day, it allows us to have better sleep and to be well rested after a good night’s sleep.”

Precautions to Take if You’re Feeling Tired

First and foremost, you know your own body best. If you’re exhausted, physically aching, or otherwise being told “NO” by your inner voice, give yourself the needed time to rest. If, however, that inner voice is more of an antagonistic whine that you’re just sleepy or lazy, rather than a real and true tale of caution, and it’s physically safe to work out, it’s better for you to go ahead with it. But should you do anything differently? In short: yes, a little.

We suggest following Olufade’s advice. “If you are feeling tired, it is best not to lift the maximum effort that day,” he says. “For example, with resistance exercises, try to lift at mild to moderate intensity. With running, if tired or unmotivated, your running technique might be off which will predispose a runner to injuries.”

Additionally, always defer to your own wellness if you have chronic issues. “Depending on your medical conditions, take precautions such as bringing snacks if you a diabetic or inhalers if you’re asthmatic,” Olufade says. “And get a check-up from your sports medicine or primary care physician, or your cardiologist if you have heart conditions of concern.”

How to Motivate

In warmer months, getting yourself off the couch can be as easy as doing a brief activity outside. Even a short walk is better than nothing, and when the sun is shining and the air is temperate, that feels pretty lovely. Studies have shown we exercise outside far less often in the fall and winter than we do in spring and summer, and that makes perfect sense. Swap that previous scenario out for the gloom and doom of fall and winter, and the outdoors has far less appeal. So what to do then?

“The hardest part of exercising many times can be finding the motivation to show up for a workout,” Olufade says. “If you are struggling to motivate yourself for a full workout, start by committing to some light movement.” This is key because we often think of things in all-or-nothing terms. Don’t want to do your usual hourlong workout? Commit to a 30-minute one instead. It’s important to keep in mind that endorphins will be released from your exercise, but it might not happen immediately.

He also notes the metabolic benefits, which can motivate those who use exercise to keep their physical shape the way they like it. “Whenever you are moving your body, you are burning calories. A 30-minute exercise of stretching, general weight lifting, or low-impact aerobics can burn about 100-200 calories depending on weight and intensity level. Those are calories you would not have burned if you stayed home.”

Lastly, a great motivator is simply the reminder that exercise is the right choice for your long-term health. Olufade notes: “In this fast-paced society, a simple 30-minute exercise will make you feel good and decrease the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.”

The Final Takeaway

It’s normal and natural to feel unmotivated to exercise sometimes. This holds especially true in colder months when the urge to cuddle can easily outweigh the desire to do squats or go for a run. However, there are incredible benefits to working out anyway, and those benefits aren’t lessened just because you didn’t feel all that into your workout or notice any particular gains. Even when a workout session leaves you disappointed, know that you’ve done well. That’s because whether lousy or amazing, your workouts improve your immunity and mood, help you sleep at night, and prevent chronic conditions. A “bad” workout is only that in your mind; to your body, all workouts are great ones.