Why you can’t be bothered to exercise after a busy day (and what you can do about this)

We’ve all been there before – you have good plans to go running or go to the gym after work and then you get back at the end of a busy and stressful day and you just can’t be bothered to exercise. Even though you know that exercising will make you feel better it feels like too much effort and you end up staying at home and skipping your exercise session.

I’ve been doing some research on why this happens recently and it is a super interesting area and one which is relevant to a lot of different situations, not just exercise. Here we’re going to look at why this happens and what you can do about it.

Why does this happen?

There is a theory called the ‘Strength Model of Self-Regulation’ which basically suggests that we all have a finite amount of self-regulation, or self-control.

As we do things which use self-control, for example going to stressful meetings, doing exams or having a jam-packed day with a never ending to-do list, the level of self-control we have gets lower and lower.

In order to replenish our self-control levels we need to rest, ideally through sleeping but this can also be done using other relaxation techniques.

This means we are constantly in a cycle of depleting our self-control levels and needing them to be replenished in order to have more self-control to use on other tasks.

So, after a busy day at work when you are likely to have used all, or most of your self-control you won’t have any left for exercising as requires lots of self-control. This means that you are much more likely to end up staying at home in front of the TV all evening rather than doing the exercise you had planned.

Skipping exercise isn’t automatically a problem, sometimes you might just be too exhausted and run down to exercise in which case resting might be what you need. But often not exercising is more just to do with a feeling of ‘not being bothered’ to, which obviously is fine occasionally but if this happens all the time then this becomes more problematic.

This problem can be increased if there are other aspects of your life where you are using lots of self-control. For example, if you are following a strict diet it is likely to be even harder to make yourself exercise as you will be using lots of self-control to make sure that you stick to your diet. Likewise if you are overcoming an addiction such as to smoking, drinking or drugs this will be depleting your self-control levels, making it harder to find the self-control to exercise.

What can you do about this?

The good news is that there are things you can do to to overcome this and develop the self-control needed to exercise more regularly.

Rest is key

As one of the key things needed to replenish your self-control levels is rest, you should try to make sure that you are getting enough sleep as this is likely to help give you enough self-control to last all day, rather than having none left by the time you get back from work.

As someone who has always struggled with sleeping I know that this is a lot easier said than done but there are things you can do to improve your sleep. You could try going to be slightly earlier rather, having a consistent night-time routine or avoid looking at screens before bedtime as the light they emit can prevent the production of melatonin, a hormone which is really important for sleeping. More tips of sleeping can be found here.

While sleep is super important for replenishing self-control (as well as lots of other things) relaxing in other ways is important. For example you could find time after work to listen to some relaxing music, do Headspace, read a book or do something else relaxing before you exercise. The key here is to set a limit to this time so you don’t just end up doing this all evening instead. So you could say you’ll read for 15 minutes and then go running, or do 10 minutes of mindfulness and then exercise.

Control your blood glucose levels

Self-control is also thought to be related to blood glucose levels, with low levels of blood glucose being linked to problems with self-control.

Now, I’m by no means a nutritionist but eating regular small meals will help with ensuring that your blood glucose levels stay stable throughout the day. If you are concerned about your blood glucose levels then a GP or nutritionist should be able to give you some advice on how to stabilise them.

Try to train your self-control

There are also suggestions that to an extent self-control can be trained and you can become better at exerting self-control over time. This can be done through trying to show self-control in other areas of your life regularly.

For example you might decide to only have one biscuit with your cup of tea rather than two, or to do the hoovering before you watch your favourite TV programme rather than hoping you will have the energy to do it after (when realistically your won’t…).

The key here is to make sure that you don’t use up all your self-control doing this (so have just the one biscuit rather than no biscuits) as you don’t want to totally deplete your self-control levels, rather just train them to become stronger.

By doing little things to increase your self-control regularly you might start finding it easier to show self-control in other areas, such as exercise.

Try to optimise self-control

Sometimes changing your plans and routines could be a good way to optimise your self-control.

If your schedule allows for it one option is to exercise before work rather than after work. This way you won’t have used so much of your self-control up for the day and so it should feel easier to get your exercise in.

Or, if this isn’t an option then exercising with other people might also help (following any relevant COVID rules, obviously). For example you might find going to a gym class rather than doing a strength workout at home, or going to a running club rather than running on your own easier as you will look forward to the social side of it and you will feel more accountable to your plans.

Alternatively if you have had a stressful day you could change your exercise plans to something that feels more manageable with your current self-control levels. For example, if you had a strenuous speed session planned which you don’t feel up to that is fine, but you might have the self-control left for a couple of slow miles instead. Having a plan is great but sometimes you need to change your plans to fit with how you are feeling.

Don’t be too harsh on yourself

And finally, we all have incredibly stressful days/ weeks from time to time where you won’t have any self-control left to exercise and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over this.

If you do manage some exercise then that is brilliant and will probably actually help to make you feel less stressed. But if you don’t then missing a few exercise sessions won’t hurt in the long run and when things calm down you can get back into an exercise routine again.

If you are going through a particularly stressful time, for example juggling lots of responsibilities at work, moving house and looking after vulnerable relatives then this might not be the best time to start a new exercise routine. It might be best to wait until things calm down a bit and then start exercising when you have the self-control to do so.

I hope this post has given you some insights into why exercising can feel extra hard after a long day, and some ways you can overcome this.

Happy exercising 🙂

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