Staying Motivated: Lessons From a Trauma Surgeon

I have a confession to make. Last summer was bad for me. I ate almost anything that was in front of me, I worked out in fits and spurts, and I struggled with motivation. We all do it and nobody talks about it: I fell off the wagon. It always starts so innocently; skipping a workout to have dinner with friends leads to having an extra glass of wine and then ice cream or pizza or whatever sounds good after a few drinks. Usually, one night is not a big deal, but in concert with waning motivation, it can quickly snowball. Before I knew it I was working out twice a week…maybe. In-N-Out burgers were my go to protein. Like I said, it was bad.

Why do we fall into bad routines?

Why? Why do we do this? For me, it has always been a combination of factors. I know that certain times of the year are worse for me than others (Thanksgiving through Christmas), and whenever I reach the end of a training cycle is always a dangerous time. Having no active goals leads to a loss of motivation for sure, and then life gets in the way.

Sometimes there are pressing things in life that are more important than working out. These periods in life are usually stressful and cause us to drift to comfort foods instead of healthy food. Last summer was the perfect storm of almost all of these things: Life Stress + No Goals + End of Cycle + Low Motivation = Poor Health None of this is an excuse; it is always a choice. I chose not to work out, and I chose to eat poorly. To make matters worse, we often start to hate ourselves a little bit for failing. Failure doesn’t feel good, and it is usually associated with shame. As a result, we don’t share with anyone and just beat ourselves up about it; which of course can lead to continued poor habits.

Lessons from the Emergency Room

Everyone has their own way of pulling themselves out of these frustrating periods but at the core, it always starts back at the beginning. In trauma surgery, we have an acronym for evaluating an injured patient when they arrive in the ER called ATLS. It is designed to identify the most immediately life-threatening injuries before moving on to less dangerous ones. The protocol, in its simplest form, is ABC (yes, I know, very fancy). • A for airway, no oxygen = not living • B for breathing. Again, oxygen. • C for cardiac. Is oxygen and blood moving throughout the body? When we evaluate these trauma patients, they can often appear to be stable for a while and then suddenly take a turn for the worse. If this happens, we simply go back to the beginning of our ABC protocol. Is the airway still secure? Can the patient still breathe? So on and so on. Usually, we find the answer.

Fixing Bad Habits: Easy as ABC

I think it helps to look at any life goal in a similar way: Something is not right. How can I make it better? Easy. Go back to the beginning. For me, that means finding a new goal, committing to a plan, and staying focused. The trick is to notice that motivation is low when you’re off that wagon, so don’t be afraid to try something different.

I was feeling burned out on lifting, so I decided to run a half marathon. I’m not a runner by any stretch of the imagination, but it gave me a new challenge, which made staying focused easier and pulled me out of that rut. A new routine and new challenge will stimulate your brain, and make the motivation part easier.

Be Kind to Yourself But Don’t Give In

It is tempting to use that bit of self-loathing as motivation as well. We have all looked in the mirror and grabbed those love handles in disgust. But be careful, because it is a double-edged sword. Once you like what you see, you’ll be tempted to take a day off and that can turn into a week. So get back up here on the wagon. There’s plenty of room. I just finished that ½ marathon, and I’m feeling ready to get back to the gym. Who’s with me?




Eric Salinger is a general surgeon who currently lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. He grew up in Wisconsin, and was a competitive swimmer from the age of five until he graduated from Pomona College. When he isn’t fixing hernias or removing gallbladders, Eric enjoys all manner of fitness activities: lifting, biking, hiking, running, swimming, or anything else that gets his heart rate up. He is always looking for new and different workouts to keep things exciting. He loves travelling with his family, listening to and playing music, and good food and wine.