Despite the many well-known benefits of exercise, many people are inactive or drop out of an exercise program before they experience those benefits. Lack of motivation is often cited as a major factor, but the problem is not necessarily a lack of any motivation, but rather a lack of effective motivation. Effective motivation can make a huge difference in achieving long-term success in any pursuit.
“I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side–I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.” Stephen King in his book, On Writing.
The joy and fulfillment that King describes is a type of motivation known as intrinsic motivation, and it’s as effective at promoting success in exercise as it is in writing, academics, business, or anything else that requires long-term commitment.
Intrinsic motivation to exercise comes easily for some people, while others don’t have it at all. If you’re one of those people who don’t like to exercise and who struggle to motivate themselves, you have two choices. You can let your lack of enjoyment undermine your efforts and never get the benefits of exercise, or you can learn to enjoy exercise and build intrinsic motivation.
The Science of Motivation
There has been a lot of research investigating why some people maintain regular exercise over time while others don’t. Many studies use “Self-Determination Theory” to explain the motivations which drive exercise and other behavior (Deci and Ryan, 2000). This theory describes three types of motivation which are located along a continuum.
On one end of the continuum is “Amotivation”, which is a lack of intention. An amotived person doesn’t see any benefit in exercising and has no intention of starting a workout program.
On the other end is “Intrinsic Motivation”, which is performing an activity because the activity itself is inherently satisfying. An intrinsically motivated person would go for a run because they enjoy running, or because they want to challenge themselves to be a better runner.
“Extrinsic Motivation” is when a person’s behavior is controlled by the desire to gain external rewards or to avoid punishment, separate from the activity itself. An example of extrinsic motivation for exercise is the desire to improve physical appearance or to avoid a getting lecture at the doctor’s office. Within extrinsic motivation, there are different subtypes. These range from behavior being completely externally controlled based on rewards and punishments administered by others (e.g. wanting to lose weight to impress an old friend), being controlled by consequences administered by the individual themselves (e.g. wanting to lose weight because that will make you feel better about yourself), to engaging in an activity because the person knows it is important (e.g. wanting to lose weight because of the health incentive of attaining a healthy weight), or because they value that importance as part of their identity (e.g. wanting to lose weight because they value health as part of their core belief system). This represents a shift in “autonomy” or “locus of causality”, which means the degree to which a behavior is undertaken willingly, without external influence. In other words, this is the difference between “needing” to exercise and “wanting” to.
Figure: Self-Determination Theory (adapted from Deci and Ryan, 2000)
Research has shown that the more intrinsic the motivation, the greater the chance of sticking with the behavior. More specifically, a systematic review of 66 studies found that “Identified Regulation” (a relatively internal type of extrinsic motivation), is generally the best predictor of initial adoption or short-term adherence to an exercise program while “Intrinsic Regulation” is generally the best predictor of long-term exercise adherence (Teixeira et al., 2012).
How to Develop Intrinsic Motivation
Of course, knowing this information and putting it into practice are two different things. Simply telling someone that extrinsic motivation is ineffective and that they should be intrinsically motivated instead is not particularly helpful or realistic. The reality is that people are motivated by many things, even within the same activity. It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to run because they know it’s important for their cardiovascular health and also because they want to lose weight to feel better about themselves. You don’t need to abandon your extrinsic motivations (unless they are negatively impacting your health or happiness), but if you want to achieve long-term success you do need to develop some intrinsic motivation to go with them. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help you become more intrinsically motivated.
According to Self-Determination Theory, a shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation is promoted by the fulfillment of three basic psychological needs: “Autonomy”, “Competency”, and “Relatedness”. Autonomy is when a person feels that they are in control of their choices and actions. Competency is when a person feels that they are capable and proficient in an activity. Relatedness involves having satisfying and supportive social relationships. The more people feel confident, in control, and connected with others, the more likely they are to be intrinsically motivated.
- Find An Activity That You Enjoy. The general recommendations for physical activity are to perform resistance exercise, cardio, and flexibility exercise. Within those guidelines, there are many ways be active. For resistance exercise you can try different variations of weightlifting (power lifting, olympic lifting), bodyweight training, or pilates. For cardio, try running, cycling, swimming, hiking, paddleboarding, or team sports. Static and dynamic stretching can increase flexibility, and so can yoga. Remember that the best workout is the one that you can do, consistently, for a long time. Don’t worry about what others are doing or take up a specific type of exercise because someone else says it is good for you. Just make sure you keep an open mind, give different types of exercise a chance, and keep trying until you find something that you like and can maintain over time.
- Be Actively Involved In Your Training. If you have input into some of the details of your program, you are more likely to feel like you are in control of your training. This can be difficult if you’re following along with an instructor or a generic program, or if you’re a beginner without any knowledge of program design, but there are always ways to get involved. Set goals that are important to you and choose a program that addresses those goals. Learn more about exercise so you can make tweaks to your current program. If you have a trainer, talk to them about your preferences. Any good trainer should be considering your needs and goals when designing your program, and should be able to adjust the program to accommodate your likes and dislikes. Ask questions so you can understand why you’re performing certain exercises and what they will help you achieve.
- Learn The Basics. Committing time and effort to learning how to perform the basic exercises can go a long way towards increasing competency. Pick two or three exercises and practice until you can do them easily. Some good resistance exercises to start with are push ups, squats, hip hinges, lunges, and rows. For cardio, practice short jogs or bike rides.
- Start Slowly And Set Yourself Up For Little Victories. A common mistake made by exercise beginners is to try to do too much, too soon. When they find the exercise too difficult and are unable to perform as well as they expected, they get frustrated and give up. Exercise is a skill, and like any skill it takes time and practice to improve. At the beginning, do something that you know you can accomplish. Choose a light weight that you can lift comfortably for 8 to 10 repetitions for one set, run for just one minute during your usual walk. As you get more comfortable with exercise, make one small increase in difficulty at a time and make sure you acknowledge and celebrate the progress you make, no matter how small it is. Remember that it’s your commitment and effort during your workouts that is driving that progress, and that little victories will eventually add up to big results.
- Track Your Progress. It’s easy to focus too much on where you’re going and forget how far you’ve come. Documenting your workouts and referring back to previous ones is a great way to appreciate the improvements you’ve made. It’s also essential for incorporating progressions in your training. Keep a log of your workouts. This can be as simple as putting a note in your phone with the date and the details of your session. Don’t just keep track of the exercises, sets, reps, distance, and time, though, also keep track of how you felt during each exercise. A simple 1-10 scale of exercise difficulty can be useful for this, with 1 being not difficult at all and 10 being the most difficult exercise you’ve ever done.
- Identify The Positive Feelings You Get From Exercise. Before, during, and after your workout, think about how you are feeling. This involves practicing mindfulness, taking the time to assess and appreciate what you’re doing and how you’re feeling in the moment rather than just going through the motions. Cultivating mindfulness can help you identify aspects of your workout that you actually enjoy. Maybe it’s the feeling of power after lifting that heavy weight, or your heart pumping during your run. Maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment when you do one more push up than last week, or that tired relaxation after you finish your bike ride. Even if you only experience one or two enjoyable feelings during your otherwise unpleasant workout, focus on them above everything else.
- Think About The Health And Fitness Benefits Of Exercise. Before and after each session, remind yourself that by exercising, you can decrease your risk of disease, increase your physical and psychological health, and improve your quality of life. Think of a few specific aspects of your health that you want to improve (decrease risk of heart attack, increase your energy to be able to play with your children, etc.) and bring those thoughts to your mind any time you feel like your resolve is faltering.
- Make Exercise A Social Experience. Find a training partner, join a group or a team. If training with someone else isn’t convenient or you prefer to exercise alone, simply discussing your workouts with like-minded friends or family can add a supportive social aspect to your training.
- Get professional help. Having a good trainer or coach design your programs and educate you on how to implement them can be extremely valuable and can set you on the path to success. A trainer can also provide support and enhance feelings of relatedness.
Intrinsic motivation is a powerful thing. Use these strategies to develop it and you will be surprised at how much easier it will be to stick with your training and eventually achieve your goals.