Exercise in a pandemic – finding motivation, accepting your limits and forgiving yourself

19 February 2021

We know that exercise is important for both our mental and physical health, but there can be many barriers to starting out, not least during a pandemic. Valentina Arnold from Student Psychological and Counselling Services knows what this feels like – and has some tips to help.

Woman wearing black shirt sitting on yoga mat

When the first lockdown started back in March 2020, the last thing on my mind was exercising. I just felt anxious and unsure of the future, as I am sure we all were. Exercising from home had never worked for me in the past; I would always start very motivated and quickly lost momentum. The gym always worked better for me, it helped me to be disciplined, especially if I had a class booked or I was meeting a friend.

I decided I would join an online exercise programme. I was inundated with different offers, from YouTube videos to online sessions offered by the gym, free subscriptions to apps to Instagram live workouts! It was overwhelming. I tried to join a few, but I kept making excuses and just didn’t like any option at all.

Exercise somehow ended up being last in my to-do list again. I lost motivation, the willingness to even try, and grew very frustrated. My mental health got worse - and so did my eating.

Exercising for my mental health

I have always been told, but ignored, the fact that exercise releases brain chemicals that make us feel good. This can help us feel less anxious, less stressed and generally be in a better mood. And back then, I could really feel it and see how it was true. I felt depressed, anxious and sluggish and also managed to make myself feel bad for not doing anything about it. It was a vicious cycle.

As summer approached, I became fed up of feeling down and wanted to get back to my form and, maybe, start wearing actual clothes rather than leggings! This time I decided to do it my way and create my own routine.

I made a list of exercises that I could do quickly in any room and at any time, but I decided not to be too strict with myself and sometimes completed one round, two or three, depending on how much time I had. And I would only do as many reps as I felt that day.

I chose the following exercises:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Burpees
  • Lunges
  • Ab crunches
  • Push ups

This won’t be the same for everyone – choose whichever exercise you like best. It could be dancing, yoga or Pilates, just choose what’s right for you. You also don’t have to have special equipment or the latest sportswear – just use what you have around you.

Be kind to yourself

The key is not to be rigid with yourself and be kind to your body. We are going through such an ordeal and we cannot expect to perform or look as we did pre-lockdown. It will sometimes feel as if you are starting from zero, but you can work on being aware of this and develop acceptance towards yourself.

This is all just about being forgiving towards yourself and understanding and accepting your limits. Take it one day at a time and most importantly, if you find something that suits your needs and lifestyle, you’ll have fun doing it. You will feel quite quickly that if exercising becomes a chore, you will not continue consistently.

Concentrate on being healthy rather than losing weight. Concentrate on how it makes you feel rather than trying to achieve a certain look. And you won’t look back, as you will create a healthy habit that’s easy to follow and will change your outlook in everything you do.

Join Project Active for free online exercise classes. 

Valentina Arnold, Student Psychological and Counselling Services