Exercise and mental health: Don’t let expectations destroy your motivation

We all know how important exercise is, both for physical and mental wellbeing. Research tells us that a daily bout of exercise can reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety by 20-30 per cent. But what happens if you start experiencing the opposite? What happens if the more you exercise, the more anxious and depressed you get?

If you’re worried that your body isn’t responding the way it “should”, you’re not alone. Exercising has, at times, left me feeling angry, irritable, confused, upset, frustrated and anxious (to name just a few). The saying “the only workout you regret is the one you didn’t do” hasn’t always rung true.

For the majority of the time though, exercise leaves me feeling: happy, motivated, kick-ass, strong, independent, powerful and confident (not always when I’m in the middle of a tough leg session, but very quickly afterwards).

So, what’s going wrong? Why is it that exercising sometimes doesn’t have the desired positive effect on mood? As I’ve written before, overtraining or ‘overreaching’ yourself, could be playing a part in your wellbeing. A paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that during a period of hard training, changes in mood can occur, including “reduced vigour and increased tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion”.  So, if you’re feeling any of these emotions – and are generally struggling to recover from your workouts, it could be that you are pushing yourself too hard.

Whether that’s the case or not though, the root cause for me comes down to one killer word: expectations.

Personal expectations can be influenced by a huge number of external factors, so keeping them in check can be a huge personal challenge. Succeed, and you will appreciate your workouts and your small wins for what they are; however, letting your expectations inflate too much, can easily lead to all the negative emotions I’ve mentioned above.

To help keep your expectations in check, here are a few key questions to ask yourself, to ensure your workouts remain enjoyable*.

1. How do I feel?

It’s fairly common to hear people say ‘listen to your body’, but I wonder how many people actually do? It’s important to really listen to how your body is feeling. Is it aching, is it tired, is it feeling run-down, is it feeling strong, is it feeling weak? However your body is feeling, you should adjust your expectations accordingly. Don’t expect to achieve a personal best (PB) on your deadlift if you barely got any sleep and have been burning the midnight oil at work.  I don’t mean that you shouldn’t try; if you succeed, brilliant, but if you don’t, you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.

More than simply physical feelings, though, is how you feel mentally. There are times throughout most people’s lives when they feel mentally stronger and, conversely, mentally weaker. Putting yourself through a tough workout can be very mentally draining, especially if you are working out independently. You have to find the mental capacity to push out the last reps, to try a heavier weight, to do an extra set. Sometimes, for whatever reason, that mental strength just isn’t there (and working out just isn’t a priority).

In the past, I have walked out of workouts because (as runners say) I had hit a mental wall. The workout was too tough for how I was feeling, so I gave up, which can easily make you feel worse. So, I have learnt when to go easy on myself; I have learnt when to take a rest day and when to plan a short, light workout instead. Plans change. Sometimes we have wins and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes you won’t have a ‘workout win’ for many months, and sometimes they will all come on the same day, but that doesn’t mean your weaker workouts were in vain. Listen to your body (and your mind) and set your expectations accordingly.

2. Am I comparing myself to others?

A wise man once said: ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. Those words have become increasingly poignant in the age of social media. How often do you find yourself scrolling though Facebook and Instagram, comparing yourself to the people you follow? My guess is, fairly often. Social media is the ultimate comparison tool and all too often the thief of joy.

How often do you find yourself inadvertently comparing your lifts or times to other people’s PBs? STOP! It’s all very well to aspire to someone else’s standards, but it’s not alright if that aspiration is proving a negative influence on your current satisfaction with your own progress, especially if that influence could lead you to quit. By all means have role models, but don’t allow your role models to become your sole focus. Don’t use your role models as a stick to beat across your own back.

“But she can lift 60 kg for 8 reps, so why can’t I? I must not be trying hard enough. I need to exercise more, I’m clearly being lazy. If she can do it, I should be able to as well. I’m just weak!”  With an internal barrage like the above, would you be surprised if you felt ready to quit by the end of the session?

Comparison with others is a bad method of motivation and a bad measure of progression because, more often than not, we don’t know the back story of the person we are comparing ourselves to. How often do they train? What do they eat? Are they getting any help? Do they have any other stresses or responsibilities in life? How long have they been training for? It would be a sad reflection if you managed to match the squat of someone who had been training for 15 years. So don’t expect to! If you do manage it, then praise yourself for your achievement, not for beating theirs.

3. Are my expectations realistic?

Nothing kills motivation like an unrealistic expectation. However, realistic expectations are a challenge to set, especially if you’re just starting out, if you consistently strive for ‘perfection’, or if (like me) you tend towards obsessive behaviour. If you identify with any of these situations, there’s a risk you could end up overdoing your workouts in pursuit of results.

That’s where having a personal trainer can really help. Most personal trainers will work with their clients on SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic targets that are attainable over a set period of Time (usually short, medium and long term). These goals could be focussed on weight loss, weight gain, strength gains, muscle development or cardiovascular PBs; in short, anything fitness related.

However, personal trainers aren’t always an option for everyone, so learning how to set yourself attainable goals should be something you aim to achieve. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by starting too large. Want to lose weight? See how you get on over a couple of weeks and then base your longer term goals on your progress over the short term. Take each week as it comes. Keep your long term goal in mind, but break it down into smaller steps so you can celebrate your successes more regularly. This applies to other fitness goals as well. Don’t expect to add 10kg to your 1RM over the course of a week. It may take a month to add 2.5kg; it may take even longer. You may struggle for months to hit new highs; at some point, you may never get another PB. Try not to go into any workout expecting one.

As I’ve said before, enjoy the process, because it’s the process that will become part of your day-to-day life: PBs or no PBs.

4. How am I speaking to myself?

My last and possibly most important check is to look at how I am speaking to myself on the gym floor. What is running through my mind, what kind of language am I using? One key question to ask yourself is: ‘would I tolerate this language from a personal trainer?’.

If you find yourself thinking negatively about your progress, if you find yourself looking in the mirror and using negative language to describe your appearance, if you always tell yourself you ‘could have done better’. STOP! Would you employ someone to treat you in the same way, or would you expect a personal trainer to be encouraging? Would you expect them to praise your efforts and offer constructive criticism, or would you expect them to pick apart your physical flaws? When you don’t have a personal trainer, it’s up to you to be the kind of person you would expect to employ. Encourage yourself. Take a mental note of the things you did well during a session and the areas you could improve on. Be logical and straightforward when assessing your workout, and always include positives.

Also, don’t judge yourself too harshly. ‘Go hard or go home’ might be an oft-quoted gym-bro phrase, but there’s nothing wrong with not giving 100 per cent. We can’t be ‘on-it’ every single day. Sometimes, 50 per cent is fine. It all adds up in the end.


If you’re suffering with mental health issues, make sure you reach out to someone you can trust, or contact the Samaritans. Samaritans are available by phone 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 116123 for free or email jo@samaritans.org.

Find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week and follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #BeBodyKind and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.

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