How I Motivated Myself To Get Fit

What this post isn’t: a promise that if you do what I did, you’ll achieve all of your fitness goals.

What this post is: me sharing my story of how I made fitness a part of my life, instead of just something I desired but only sporadically took action on.

I’ve cared about my image for over a decade. Ever since I emerged from puberty, I’ve had a strong awareness of how I looked and a deep desire to change it.

I’ve had a gym membership since 2011 but it wasn’t until 2016 that I truly understood what I needed to do to get the body I wanted. And the gym was the easy part. The hard part was outside of the gym: paying attention to what I ate, learning the information I needed get in shape, and maintaining and building long-term habits around fitness.

I really admire people who have achieved their fitness goals, whatever those may be. It takes an incredible amount of hard work, huge determination, and the ability to prioritize their health above other, more immediate pleasures. I’m not going to share any before-and-after photos in this post because I’m shy, but I will say that whenever someone notices my fitness progress and gives me a compliment, I get such a high. Not that I’ve transformed into an Abercrombie model since the last time you saw me but when someone recognizes my hard work, it feels good!

Here, I’ll share the details of my workout and nutrition plans. Then, I’ll share my insights on the intangible aspects of how I got in better shape: the education, motivation, and habit formation that were key to achieving my goals.

Donal’s Routine

Eating Plan


The key for me was meal prep. I’d spend several hours on a Sunday preparing cheap, healthy meals to eat throughout the week. I talked about that process in full detail here. This is what I actually ate:

  • Breakfast: Protein shake with milk, oatmeal, eggs, fish oil supplement.
  • Lunch: Wholemeal wrap with hummus, deli meats, cheese, greens, and veggies.
  • Afternoon snack: smoothie, green tea, leftovers from the previous dinner.
  • Post-workout: protein shake with milk.
  • Dinner: Meat (chicken or fish), veggies (peppers onions, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, sweet potato.)
  • Drink: lots and lots of water.

This is a general outline, and it’s important to note that I never tortured myself with a diet. I never wanted six-pack abs, because it’s not a very fun process to achieve that. Once I accepted this in my head, I felt so liberated. I got beers with friends, had dessert often, and enjoyed the amazing food around my neighborhood around Hell’s Kitchen.

I did try my best to stay away from processed foods and refined sugar, and once that stuck in my head, the thought of buying a Coca-Cola or a packet of potato chips became unappealing. Except for Ben & Jerry’s, there’s something about those two guys I’ll never be able to stay away from.

A few quick eating tips that truly helped me include:

  • finding ways to cook veggies that are actually tasty. Instead of boiling them or steaming them, roast them in oil and spices or throw them into a stew. You might lose some of the nutrients but if you don’t enjoy what you’re eating, you’ll never stick with it long-term anyway.
  • drinking flavored seltzer waters. They completely replaced my cravings for sugary sodas and that end-of-the-workday beer, without any of the calories or general bad-for-you-ness.

Exercise Plan



Peak Donal

If you’re interested, here’s the exercise I get each week:

  • Three days a week: 30 minutes of intense interval cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. If you don’t know about interval training, google it. If you’re spending any more than a half-hour on a treadmill, you are wasting your time because intervals give you better results in much less time.
  • Four days a week: strength training in the gym. I’m naturally skinny, so my goal to get bigger doesn’t really resonate with a lot of people. In fact, whenever I share my fitness targets with people they will either roll their eyes or get visibly angry. To that I say, everyone’s goals are different, the grass is always greener, and even though my challenges may not be the same as yours, they are still challenges. I follow this workout routine if you’re curious.
  • Two days a week: yoga classes. I don’t connect with the spirituality of yoga. For me, it’s an intense core workout and gives my body a good stretch. It’s also an amazing form of therapy. By giving yourself an hour to focus only on your body and breath, casting away all your worries and responsibilities, you get such a mental relief. I always leave class feeling lighter and happier than when I walked in.
  • Seven days a week: a good night’s sleep. I haven’t cracked this one yet. I constantly stay up later than I should and wake up tired every morning, but I do recognize the importance of sleep for achieving fitness goals. The good thing is, you’ll always sleep better on a day that you exercise than when you don’t.

How Health & Fitness Became Part of My Life

For years I aspired to have a body that others could admire and desire. For years I did nothing about it. Or sometimes I’d start to do something about it, and then give up when I realized it was hard.

My aspirations never went away, and I kept trying and failing to make a healthy lifestyle a habit. But I did keep trying, and one day it all clicked for me. “Keep trying” isn’t practical advice, so here I’ll dig a little deeper into how I made my health a top priority.

Educate Yourself

My biggest problem for years was that I didn’t know what I was doing. Exercise and nutrition are scientific concepts. If you don’t have the knowledge of why you need to pick this weight up ten times and put it down again, it will all seem very silly and you won’t want to keep doing it. The why is very important.

Luckily, all the information you need is here on the internet, for free. All you have to do is read it! A few tidbits of information that truly helped me include:

  • When you lift weights, you’re physically tearing your muscle fibers so that they grow back stronger.
  • If the last repetition of an exercise isn’t excruciatingly difficult or near-impossible, then your effort was wasted.
  • If any of these substances have a regular feature in your diet, you’re harming your body for an instant high: potato chips, soda, sweets, candy bars, excessive amounts of beer, baked goods. There are entire industries tasked with telling you that you need these “foods”, but ask yourself— what good is this doing for my body?
  • If you can lift heavy but you’re not using the proper form, you’re not actually lifting heavy. Focus on form first, and the gains will come.

Motivate Yourself

This is, by far, the most difficult part of the fitness journey. You could have armed yourself with all the knowledge you need to achieve your goals, but how can you summon yourself to get up and actually do it? And consistently?

The first thing you need to do is accept that the fitness game is a long one. You won’t see any results for weeks, even months. That’s why it’s so hard. You get instant pleasure from eating a donut, but no pleasure from that morning run. In fact, you’ll need to do that run multiple times per week, for many many weeks to see any kind of progress. That delay is discouraging for everybody. Now, where’s that donut?

That’s why it became helpful for me to think of fitness as part of my daily life, just like brushing my teeth, watching TV, and meeting up with friends. It has to be something you just do, and you will need to sacrifice other parts of your life to make time for it. If you really, truly, want that hot body, you’ll make those sacrifices to achieve it.

Visual Aids

In the beginning, I followed the Seinfeld Method which states that to achieve a goal, do something towards that goal every single day. Just something. I had a giant calendar in my living room where I’d mark a big X when I did something for my health—went to the gym, went for a run, did a yoga class, something. Seeing that unbroken streak every time I walked in my door was incredible motivation. Here’s how it looked:

2015-10-20 08.29.11.jpg

The Early Results

The visual aids helped me to get over the initial slog of becoming a guy who keeps fit. What kept me going past that was when I started to see the early results of my work. One day I realized, oh I’m getting there!

This is going to get weirdly personal, but I remember the moment when I was walking down the street and realized that my thighs were rubbing together as I strolled down 9th Avenue. Being so skinny, I always had twigs for legs and one of those often-coveted ‘thigh gaps’. But I wanted to get bigger, thicker, and stronger and it was starting to happen. Eventually, my arms started to fill out their sleeves, my pec definition would show through my t-shirt, and my size small, skinny-fit clothes stopped being baggy on my skeletal frame.

Not only did my body start to transform, but my mind did too. I started feeling confident, I’d feel good about myself in public and stopped walking around with my head down avoiding all eye contact. Confidence is a big part of looking good. When you act confident, you become confident, and other people notice.

Put Yourself Out There

An important early step in becoming a person who keeps fit is to stop caring about what other people think. It’s easy to feel self-conscious in a gym. The majority of people there are already fit—it’s true, and this can be intimidating. But remember, they all started from nothing too.

I used to feel very awkward in a gym, not knowing what I should be doing, how I should be standing, and generally thinking I don’t belong here. I used to get embarrassed reading the instructions on a gym machine because I didn’t want people to see that I didn’t already know how to use it. All this made me fear the gym, and I stopped going.

It was this fact that helped me to banish all of those feelings:

Nobody is thinking about you. They’re all thinking about themselves.

This is simultaneously sad and liberating. The strangers in the gym do not give a damn about what you are doing. They’re not paying any attention. And if they are looking at you, it’s more likely they’re envious of something about you: your arms, your hair, your workout gear.

I was much more productive in the gym once I realized nobody gave a damn about me. I got on with what I was there to do. I stopped being embarrassed about how small the weights were that I was lifting, I made mistakes, I learned, I got better, and I got stronger.

From Then to Now

In total, I jumped from 130 pounds to 154 pounds. That was 24 pounds of muscles gain—most of which I achieved in 2016 after it all clicked for me. I ended up losing all of these gains and more, due to my long stint of backpacking across Latin America. But I’m back to it now and hope to reach 160 pounds in 2018.

This didn’t come easy. Everything above seems short when condensed into one blog post, but this took me years to get right. I hope it takes you less. Fitness started off as something scary, unpleasant, and unattainable. Now, it’s something I’m passionate about, I enjoy, and I prioritize above other things.



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