2 Types of Exercise Motivation & Why Only One is Sustainable

image of Cathe Friedrich exercise motivation during a class at Four Seasons Fitness of the Glassboro Road Trip

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you they want to get into shape and enjoy the many health benefits that exercise offers. Yet, a sizeable number can’t muster up the motivation! If they start an exercise program, they work out for a few weeks and then gradually lose their enthusiasm. Gradually, they start to skip workouts and are soon back to square one. Another failed attempt at getting in shape! If you ask them WHY they stopped exercise, they might tell you they no longer have time, but the reality is, they lost their exercise motivation.

The sad statistic is half of all people who start an exercise program drop out within six months. The good news is 50% of the people who start to exercise continue to do so. So, the news isn’t all bad. You might wonder what separates the people who stick with exercise long term from those who make a go of it and drop this healthy habit like yesterday’s news. One factor is what motivates them to exercise in the first place.

Exercise Motivation: Two Varieties

Motivation is the desire or willingness to do something. It’s what drives us to get up in the morning, go to work, complete a project, and take steps to preserve our health.  Psychologists recognize two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. As the name implies, extrinsic motivation comes from outside yourself. For example, a loved one tells you that you need to start exercising or your family physician puts pressure on you to lift weights to preserve your dwindling muscle strength and mass. Likewise, you might go in for a bone density study and discover you have osteopenia and learn that you have to exercise to avoid osteoporosis.

These external motivators are valid reasons to begin exercising but these factors are extrinsic and extrinsic motivation is less likely to keep you working out long term. The reason? Because you’re doing it to please other people, you’re motivated by something external to yourself. Another example of extrinsic exercise motivation is working out to lose weight or change your body type to fit someone else’s standard of beauty or to follow the latest fashion trend.

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is a desire that comes from within and is independent of outside influences or the desire to conform to someone else’s standards or expectations. When you’re intrinsically motivated to exercise, you do it because exercise makes you feel good and provides internal satisfaction. You enjoy the energy it gives you and relish the feeling you get when you lift a heavy weight or make it through a tough, high-intensity interval session. You also enjoy the endorphin boost you get afterward. Exercise becomes its own reward and is unrelated to anything outside yourself. Sure, you appreciate the body fat you’re losing and the muscle definition you’re gaining but you’d keep doing it even in the absence of these rewards.

Which form of exercise motivation do you think will serve you better? It’s not hard to see how being intrinsically motivated works in your favor. When exercise becomes rewarding, regardless of whether you’re pleasing other people by doing it, you’re more likely to make it a long-term habit.

Intrinsic Exercise Motivation is More Sustainable

Does science say intrinsic motivation is better? In a study published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers asked 87 sedentary adults to take part in a 10-week exercise program. The adults did either moderate-intensity exercise or high-intensity interval training. They also questioned the participants about their motivation for taking part in the program. As you might expect, some were motivated by intrinsic factors and others by extrinsic. In the final analysis, the researchers found those who intrinsically motivated were more likely to complete the program.

How does this apply to you? If you have trouble staying motivated or are frequently skipping workouts for no reason, think about why you’re doing it. Are you motivated by losing weight, wearing a smaller pant size, or do you enjoy the process of exercise and the way you feel during and after? If you say the latter, the chance of sticking with it for longer than six months is higher.

How Can You Become More Intrinsically Motivated?

To adopt a more positive and intrinsic attitude toward working out, exercise more mindfully. Stop focusing on how tired you feel or how many more minutes you have left. Instead, reconnect with what it feels like to move. Note how a weight feels in your hand and the power your arms are generating as you lift it. Immerse yourself in the moment and use all of your senses to engage with each set. Learn to enjoy the “here and now” of working out and moving your body. Think about the energy flowing through you and the sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering each rep.  Appreciate exercise for the feeling it creates whether than focusing on some future outcome, like losing weight. Also, set realistic, specific goals and record your progress toward meeting that goal. We all like to accomplish things and see evidence that we followed through!

Other Factors That Impact Exercise Adherence

Other factors, based on research, that impact how likely a person is to exercise long term is how confident they are that they can do it. People who are more assured of their ability to work out are more likely to be habitual exercisers. That’s partially why people join and quit health clubs – they don’t feel confident in their abilities and feel like they’re on display. In fact, a study in Frontiers of Psychology found that perceived competence topped the list of factors that make people stick to an exercise program. Home workouts eliminate the added pressure and with the help of online training, you can learn the moves at home at your own pace without feeling scrutinized.

Exercising at home means you’re ready to go within minutes and on your own time schedule. Yet, it’s also beneficial to have a support group and the knowledge that other people are exercising with you. That’s where online support groups, social media, and forums can help.

Also, research shows people who have unrealistic expectations about what exercise will do for them are more likely to drop out. For example, people who anticipate losing weight quickly on an exercise program and then don’t are more likely to quit in frustration. So, take small steps toward achieving your fitness goals and celebrate small victories. You’re always a work in progress!



Exercise Motivation: What Starts and Keeps People Exercising? Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Front. Psychol., 29 August 2016 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01296.


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