At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like my fitness schedule was one of the few things I could control. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I had more time to plot out my runs and strength training sessions, which made me feel great. But in the last week or two, I fell off my game. Work got busy — even when I scheduled a bootcamp class towards the end of the day, I felt like I couldn’t take a break. On the weekends, I had a bunch of Zoom calls with friends and I wanted to binge-watch Never Have I Ever with my mom. My consistent five-day-a-week regimen was on a steady decline.
Luckily, right as I was hitting peak quarantine fitness fatigue, I got on the phone with Akin Akman, the co-founder and chief fitness officer of Aarmy in New York City.
Akman first shot to fame as a SoulCycle instructor. His classes were consistently waiting-list-only. We're talking about hundreds of people, clearing their schedules so they could be at their computers on Monday at noon, when the new Soul scheduled opened up for the week. His classes were regularly booked up within minutes.
Eventually, he left Soul and opened his own cycling and bootcamp studio, which has been offering Instagram Live sessions during the pandemic. To Akman’s followers (who proudly refer to themselves as Akin’s Army), he’s more than a fitness instructor. He’s a motivational mentor and a spiritual adviser.
There's a reason he was one of the most popular SoulCycle instructors for years in a row, after all. Even among the spin studio's particular style of quasi-spiritual, super-inspirational coaching, Akman stood out. He promised more than stronger muscles. He promised a stronger mind. And his army believed him. Honestly, if you've met him you know — it's hard not to.
During my conversation with the trainer, I let it slip that I was having a hard time staying motivated during my at-home workouts. Is it dramatic to say that the advice he gave me — the highlights of which I've outlined here — changed everything? Maybe... But the day after we spoke, I was back on my yoga mat.
Remember: It’s just practice
We tend to think of exercise as if we're athletes participating in a sporting event. We need to show up, give it our all, and get a good result. But unless you’re Serena Williams, working out isn’t going to win you any trophies. Better to think of exercise like practice instead, says Akman. Some days might feel like game days, where you're rested and motivated and ready to give it your all. But the majority are practice days, days when you might be feeling off or tired and honestly, just showing up counts as a win.
Before my conversation with Akman, I considered lacing up my tennis shoes the hardest part of my workout — in other words, actually committing to doing it and getting started. So this mental tweak Akman delivered during our conversation has been a game-changer: You start committing to your workout way earlier, and in much smaller ways, than you might think, he says. “If you're even thinking about it, it’s already a plus!” he insists. “Instead of letting the doubts and the fears lead you, as soon as you start, that’s when your journey begins.”
It sounds almost silly, but treating just thinking about working out like a big win is insanely motivating. The idea of going for a run passes through my mind, and I start to think, "Hey, I'm already practically halfway there!" It makes me less likely to fall prey to thoughts like, "I don't have time" or "this seems hard," my two favorite excuses for not working out.
Keep it simple & consistent
Many pros will tell you to constantly mix up your fitness routine to keep things interesting. Not Akman. “If you stick to one coach who has one philosophy, that’s when you have a chance to grow," Akman says. “If you’re a tennis player and coach keeps changing your grip or you kept going to different coaches and they all had a different idea of what you should be trying, nothing would go on autopilot and it would take forever to learn. It’s often better to pick one goal.”
And it's true. If you're always trying new workouts, you're always starting as a beginner. But it takes a few sessions to really get into a flow, and as you build expertise, your enjoyment of the practice naturally deepens.
If you want to quit in the middle, ask yourself this
Last week during a Zoom group class, something occurred to me: I could quit. Maybe this isn't revolutionary to you, but during IRL classes, I'd never seriously considered standing up and walking out. Virtually, however... I closed out of the Zoom window and ditched, no questions asked. It was freeing! But I quickly learned that when you quit once, it's so much easier to do it again. And I love to work out! I didn't want to keep feeling the call of the "Leave meeting" button.
Yet again, Akman came through for me. He says that when you’re (I'm) tempted to shut your laptop, you should ask yourself two questions: Why did I decide to begin this workout in the first place? and Is stopping really necessary? (BTW: If it is necessary — you're in pain, say — then the answer to question two is yes, and you should stop!)
“Remember you have choices,” he says. “You could give up, but that determines your reality. Everyone has both worthy and unworthy thoughts, but it's the thoughts you feed that become your reality. So try listening to the voice saying, 'I want to stick with this.' In the challenge is where you get to really build rituals and habits that become your reality. Your reality is in your hands."
Don’t be afraid of modifications
If you've taken one of Akman's classes, you may have been surprised when he encouraged newbies to take it really easy and to just focus on finishing the session, not nailing every move. But that's something he truly believes: Take every modification you need to to get through a workout. Do push-ups on your knees, walk during your jog, hang out in child's pose — it’s okay.
In fact, Akman says you should let your modifications “encourage you.” Because by making the effort to finish your workout, you're building up stamina, endurance, and strength — and you'll do even better the next time you try. “Let it inspire you," he says. "Here is the mirror of possibility and here’s the path."
Also, widen your idea of what "progress" looks like. If you finish a run literally one second faster than you did last week, celebrate. Or if you run five steps farther. "In a race, it can be literally a split second between you winning or not," Akman points out. "If you couldn’t do a sit up last week, and you can now, that’s amazing.”
Remember, even a little step forward is a step forward. “To put it into perspective, when you’re climbing a mountain, you can’t be dropped off at the top of Mount Everest — you won't survive, you haven't adapted to the elevation or temperature," Akman says. "You have to climb. Sometimes you have to go back down a bit into a gorge to ascend. Everyone wants to get to the top, buy why hurry? Adapt through the process, it’s more rewarding that way.”
Get a workout buddy, even if that buddy is Spotify
“It’s fun to do work out with friends and parents, and you can hold each other accountable and be a team,” Akman says. Sign up for the same Zoom Pilates class as a friend, or go on socially distant run together if you can really stick to keeping six feet apart.
In the absence of people, though, Lizzo always works in a pinch. "Music drives you,” Akman says. “When you’re about to do burpees but then you know the beat is about to drop, it’s going to bring so much energy and urgency to your workout.”
Focus on the positive
I know. It’s easier said than done during the pandemic, when you might have lost a loved one, a job, or be struggling with your own health. But negative thoughts have a way of snuffing out even the strongest motivation.
Akman suggests this mental flip: "Instead of looking at things you don’t have or that you can't do, and look at what you do have and can do," he says, adding as an example of this thought process: “We have all this technology built, so we aren’t really isolated, and we’re more in contact with some people than we ever were. I encourage people to think of all the things we didn't have time for before."
At first, you might feel like you're faking it. But this little shift really does brighten the spirit. You're not denying that negative things are happening; you're just choosing to give weight to the good, too.