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How to find fitness motivation after this train wreck of a year

The key to working out at home is to think of it less like exercise and results, and more like a mental health benefit.

An illustration of a woman trying to do planks in her apartment with a cat on her back and a ringing phone and chat requests coming up on her laptop.
Working out at home means battling space, equipment, and motivation issues.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

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One of the things I miss most about my pre-pandemic life was being in a room of sweaty people. I’m not a fan of sweat or people separately and independently, yet somehow I very much enjoy group fitness classes. The adrenaline, the motivational yelling, the excitement and fear of performing one more squat in front of an attractive instructor, and the 60 minutes of separation from my phone — something about it all clicks for me.

And since March, I haven’t been able to go to one.

Because of fears of Covid-19 spread in closed spaces, Barry’s and similar companies like F45, SoulCycle, and Rumble shut their doors across the country. Cities like New York and Los Angeles haven’t allowed them to reopen, citing health reasons (some cities are allowing group fitness to reopen with reduced capacity) and some fitness companies have called it quits altogether. And as the pandemic continues to intensify, it seems like reopening isn’t going to happen until a vaccine is fully accessible.

For fans of Barry’s, group fitness, gyms, and exercise in the last nine months have been an exercise in adaptation. Some classes are now offered outside. Some companies have accelerated and created apps. Some instructors are on Zoom, allowing for real-life interactions, kind of. But none of these options are quite the same as getting into a room full of sweaty people and working out while someone yells motivating things at you.

The pandemic disrupted every single routine in our lives, exercise included. And as the weather gets colder and outdoor classes aren’t as viable an option — and as the pandemic gets worse and possibly results in more shelter-in-place directives — it could all change again.

So how does one maintain a semblance of a routine? Or even simpler, how can you motivate yourself to do anything beyond get out of bed?

I posed these questions to Charlie Meredith, a senior curriculum mentor at Barry’s. Meredith has been teaching Barry’s classes outdoors and through Zoom via the company’s online classes for the last nine or so months, and on top of that has been working out, too. Here’s what he had to say about exercising and tips and tricks to stay motivated even though we may not want to.

No one has dumbbells, and that’s okay

Charlie Meredith.

One of the oddest ways the pandemic has changed the economy is how ordinary objects have become so difficult to find. Because of a broken supply chain — and because many gym-goers never previously had to purchase dumbbells themselves — there’s now a dumbbell shortage. During the pandemic, prices for dumbbells have skyrocketed, with sellers pricing them out of normal ranges.

“Dumbbells are rarer than 24K gold these days,” Meredith said.

Heavy household objects, including bags of flour, can be good makeshift weights; a loaded backpack can work in a pinch, too. Or, if they’re willing, find a small child or a neighbor’s Chihuahua and curl them. And while they aren’t as heavy and might not get you the same strength results as weights, resistance bands could be a good investment.

“Don’t forget about resistance bands, kettlebells, water jugs, and wine bottles,” Meredith said. “Last, but not least — use your body weight. There are so many platforms out there that provide fierce and effective body-weight workouts.” Meredith explained that you don’t need a lot of equipment to get started or to keep your routine going.

Since the pandemic shut down gyms and fitness studios in March, I’ve turned my living room into a workout station. Every morning I drag my coffee table out of the way, unroll a yoga mat, and do a Barry’s online class via Zoom. It’s nowhere near the same thing as working out in the studio, but it works for me.

One of the things I reluctantly do and what Meredith encourages is to keep your “camera on” during the classes. My rule is that I don’t do this for any class earlier than 7 am, but I’ve found that keeping the camera on makes me less inclined to half-ass the workout. I can’t skip bear planks or cheat my squat if someone’s watching. But there’s another benefit, Meredith explained.

“Barry’s At Home is the best because you can work out with your camera on and the instructor can watch and provide form cues,” he said. “Hold yourself accountable, and if you have any specific questions reach out directly to the instructor.”

Having taken a lot of these classes, form corrections are usually only slightly embarrassing. But they are valuable in that they will likely keep you from tweaking your lower back, or remind you to keep your knee from caving during lunges. It’s nice to have a real-life fitness professional tell you if you’re doing a certain movement right, versus following along on an app and not really knowing what “feels” right.

Screw expectations and be kind to ourselves

One of the most heartening things that Meredith, whose arms seem to be as thick as my entire torso, told me was that the pandemic has made him adjust his exercise habits, too. Shared bemoaning and general complaint is a strong motivator for me, so hearing how fitness people have their off days made me feel better.

“These are difficult times and we are all mentally being put through the wringer. Be kind to yourself, do things that make you happy and spark joy,” he said. “Take time out of each day and dedicate it to yourself.”

He said that consistency and balance are challenging, considering all the curveballs the pandemic has thrown at him. But he found clarity by acknowledging that this life-altering event is in fact a life-altering event. It’s important to take that into account when we’re being hard on ourselves, he said.

Part of establishing consistency is understanding that we’re not expected to go all out every single day. Listening to your body and taking down a level of intensity or taking a recovery day, he said, is as important as going hard and crushing goals.

Another way to look at it might be to stop focusing on results, and putting more emphasis on how exercise can make you feel. Meredith says exercise now feels, more than ever, like a mental health release. And those moments are valuable and may motivate you to show up on days when you don’t feel like it.

Taking honest stock of what’s happened, and what options are available, can be grounding and even motivating. “Remind yourself that the ability to move your body is a gift; to sweat is a privilege,” Meredith told me. “Even if it’s 10 minutes, something is better than nothing.”

Whether that’s a Barry’s class, or a yoga class, or taking a walk, or learning something new like jumping rope, the best workout is the one you’re going to do and one that you enjoy doing. And perhaps those building blocks of feeling good and gratitude can slowly build into something resembling consistency and a routine, or bring back the pre-pandemic motivation.

“Personally I have never done a workout and regretted it,” Meredith told me.