Motivation and Exercise

Have you ever heard someone say something like the following: “I want to start working out, but I’m just not motivated.”

Or perhaps: “I’m going to hire a trainer. I need the motivation.”

These statements illustrate commonly held beliefs about the relationship between motivation and exercise. Motivation undoubtedly plays an essential role in any change of behaviour. However, the conventional understanding of the relationship between motivation and exercise is a mischaracterization and creates a barrier for many people looking to start exercising consistently.

Motivation matters. It really does. Nobody has ever accomplished anything important being motivated at some point.

Yet motivation is not a prerequisite for participation in an activity. Nor is it a magical feeling that if only it can be discovered, will deliver us to our goals. In the spirit of getting more people to start exercising, let’s re-examine our relationship with motivation and try to understand what it can and can’t do for someone looking to start exercising for good.

What is Motivation?

Motivation represents a person’s desire or willingness to do something. There are different sub-types of motivation. One example is extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is doing something because of an external reward. For example, if someone offered you $100 to do twenty push-ups, you would probably do the push-ups even if you didn’t care about upper body strength or exercise at all. Hey, it’s $100!

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. In this example you do the push-ups because you care about the push-ups. Someone may want to do push-ups because they want a stronger and better-looking chest. They have a goal that’s important to them, and they know that the behaviour of push-ups will help them achieve that goal.

The deepest type of motivation is when a behaviour is somehow tied to a person’s identity or self-concept. This person approaches push-ups with the mind-set that doing push-ups is part of who they are. When behaviour becomes associated with identity, it is very likely that the behaviour is going to be continued long-term.

But this level of motivation cannot simply be conjured out of thin air. Rarely does a person wake up and suddenly identify their concept of who they are with a new behaviour. In fact, the order is almost always reversed. Regular participation in an activity will gradually and eventually create this association. So, the best way to become motivated to do an activity, is to do that activity.

This is not unique to exercise. I have noticed this has become popular advice for young people in search of their ideal career. “Do what your passionate about” is outdated. A lot of people do not know what they are passionate about, and it’s hard to be passionate about something that you haven’t done. Instead, do something that you have at least some interest in, and through the act of doing, the passion may grow. If it doesn’t, you can move onto something else, having gained some new skills that come from putting honest effort into something.

So, participation breeds motivation, not the other way around. Someone waiting for motivation to exercise to find them while not exercising might be waiting a long time.

And even people who have strong motivation to exercise, motivation doesn’t show up every day. If you want results, whatever that means to you, you’re going to need to be consistent.
And if you’re going to be consistent, you’re going to have to show up even when motivation doesn’t. I had an experience like this recently that might help explain this point.

You Can’t Rely on Motivation

I train myself 4-5 times per week, usually Monday through Friday. I usually train in the morning, but sometimes I have other obligations and I need to train in the evening to get the session in. This happened recently, and when the evening came around, I was tired. Really tired. I had a busy work day, and after putting my daughter to bed and cleaning the kitchen, I was spent. I needed to sit down for a few minutes before I thought about packing up my gym bag and heading out the door. Sitting on the couch, I thought about how I did not want to go to the gym. At all. I thought about how I would probably be up late because of the workout, and that I would likely be tired the next day too. Big sigh. After a while I got off my ass, put my shoes on, and I went to the gym.

Here’s the thing. At no point did my mental state turn any corner, nor did I have any kind of excited positive feeling that people commonly associate with this idea of being motivated. I also didn’t connect to my inner purpose, or anything like that. I just went.

Because I went, and because I was not coerced or influenced by any external force, I was, by definition, motivated to train. But I sure as heck didn’t feel like it.

And I share this story because it seems that many people view the idea of some positive feeling or some driving force that we call motivation as a prerequisite for going to the gym. It’s not. You just have to do it. It doesn’t matter how you feel.

I also share this story to highlight the fact that even for a committed exerciser, motivation isn’t always there. The idea that you need to become a “motivated person” to start exercising is false.

I should add that I don’t always drag my ass to the gym. Most of the time I look forward to it and enjoy it while I’m there. But even after many years of consistent training, some days I don’t feel motivated and I need to rely on something else.

That something else is discipline.

Discipline Beats Motivation

“Do or Do Not, There is No Try.”

It’s discipline that gets you through on the days that motivation isn’t there. Discipline is the key to consistency, and consistency is the key to progress.

Discipline doesn’t feel as good as motivation, but it is more reliable and within our control. Motivation isn’t a choice. Discipline is.

If there is someone you admire for their consistency in the gym, the thing that makes them special is not their motivation. It’s discipline.

The point is not to discount the importance of motivation. It’s a real psychological phenomenon and it absolutely plays a role in adopting and sustaining a behaviour. The point is that the popular understanding of the role motivation plays in exercising consistently is incorrect. I believe this misunderstanding represents a barrier for many people looking to start exercising.

Why Our Thoughts About Motivation Matter

Something we always need to bear in mind is that in spite of the universally accepted value and importance of consistent exercise, 85% of Canadian adults do not meet the minimum physical activity guidelines. 

That means only 15% percent of people are doing the minimum, and far fewer are doing enough to achieve the goals that most people have around performance or body composition.

If our collective understanding of how to exercise has given us these results, I believe that we need to reconsider every single aspect of our relationship with exercise. We also need to remove any and all possible barriers. Viewing motivation as a prerequisite for beginning to exercise is a potential barrier. Let’s get rid of it.

If you’ve been thinking about becoming more active, start today. Even if you’re not motivated. You get the benefits of exercise even if you do it begrudgingly. If you can push yourself through a few workouts to get started, you might find that motivation starts to find you.

If you’re thinking about starting a new exercise routine and think some professional coaching can help you get where you want to go, our online training programs might be perfect for you. Get in touch to find out more.


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exercise, exercise and motivation, fitness, health, motivation, strength training, weight loss

Comments (4)

  • you make some excellent points & like you I often don’t feel like working out but I do . So, consider this: there may be a direct link between motivation, passion & discipline- I submit that the little voice inside your head that pushed you to workout when you didn’t want to was the direct link between passion & motivation- your brain knows the value of the workout even if the body is saying no! Without passion for fitness this likely would not happen & those of us with passion have a built in “guilt-ometer” ; that voice inside our head that won’t let us quit

    • Thanks for your comment, and I agree with your perspective! I might suggest that the little voice need not be guilt, but rather an understanding that the benefits of the workout, or the overall experience of the workout, is better than the experience of not working out. It can be an objective thing, not necessarily tied to emotion. Thanks so much for reading and sharing!

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