Lack of motivation is one of the most common issues that prevents people from being active.  But what does it mean to “be motivated”?  And once we’ve lost motivation to exercise, how can we go about finding it? 

The good news is – motivation is something we all have within us.

But sometimes what’s going on in our lives can lead to “unhelpful” types of exercise motivation or can quash our motivation altogether.  

I’m first going to explain what I mean by “helpful” and “unhelpful” exercise motivation. Then we’ll consider what might cause motivation to diminish and how you might go about getting it back.  

What types of exercise motivation are there? 

Exercise motivation refers to the reason (or reasons) we decide to move our body at any given time.  Put another way, what is the purpose of going for a walk, of hoovering the house or playing football in the park?  If we don’t see any value in what we’re likely to get out of the activity, we’re unlikely to do it.   

Motivation can be either intrinsic (exercising for enjoyment, such as running for fun) or extrinsic (exercising for a reward, such as completing a 10k race). 

We know there are some downsides to extrinsic motivation, because once you have achieved your “reward” your motivation can diminish.  

But it’s a little more complex than saying intrinsic motivation is good and extrinsic motivation is bad. 

Whether motivation is helpful or not depends on whether it is comes from within (i.e. we “want” to exercise) or whether it is determined by external pressures (i.e. we feel we “have” to exercise).  Let’s look more closely at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  

Intrinsic motivation (helpful)

If you are intrinsically motivated to exercise, it means you exercise because of the pleasure and interest you get from the experience itself.  Or put simply, because you enjoy exercise.  

Children are some of the most intrinsically motivated movers around – just look at the fun they have playing active games, chasing each other or bouncing on the trampoline.   But adults too can experience intrinsic exercise motivation, whether it’s playing your favourite sport, enjoying a walk in nature, or enjoying the beautiful moves of yoga or martial arts.   Even if you’re an exercise-hater, it’s likely you have enjoyed moving to your favourite tunes while no-one was looking (go on admit it!).  

Not surprisingly, intrinsic motivation is a helpful form of exercise motivation.   Extensive research shows people who enjoy exercise are more likely to keep it up in the long-term.  Not rocket science I know, but useful to know that our instincts are well-founded.  

Extrinsic motivation (both helpful and unhelpful)

Now things become more complex when we talk about extrinsic exercise motivation.

If you are extrinsically motivated to exercise, it means you are exercising to gain some kind of beneficial outcome.  It is likely that even if you enjoy exercise, you also have some extrinsic motivators for exercising.   These motivators may be external (e.g. to win a medal) or internal (e.g. to gain a personal sense of achievement). 

Throughout my blogs you will hear me refer to a theory called Self-Determination Theory.  Self-Determination Theory suggests there are several types of extrinsic motivation, which vary in the effects they have on our exercise behaviour (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Helpful and unhelpful types of extrinsic motivation (based on Self-Determination Theory)

Helpful extrinsic motivation

On the right-hand side of the figure (in green) are forms of extrinsic motivation that involve an active choice to exercise (this is called “autonomous motivation”).   This might be because you have decided you would like to lose weight, you want to train for a 10k to challenge yourself, or because you believe strongly in being active and healthy.  This type of exercise feels like you “want to” exercise, rather than you have to.  Like intrinsic motivation, these forms of motivation are helpful for both your exercise behaviour and your mental wellbeing. 

Unhelpful extrinsic motivation

On the left-hand side of the figure (in red) are forms of extrinsic motivation that involve pressure from either yourself or someone else to be active (this is called “controlled motivation”).   You might feel forced to exercise to lose weight, feel like you have to exercise to please someone else, or feel like you’re not worthwhile if you don’t look a certain way or can’t run as fast as others.    With these types of exercise motivation, you’re likely to feel like you have no choice – exercise is a chore that you “have to” do.   These forms of motivation are usually unhelpful for both your exercise behaviour and your mental wellbeing.  

Why does quality of exercise motivation matter?

If you’re exercising because you “want to” (higher quality motivation), you’re more likely to keep it up and you’re more likely to feel good about yourself.   But if you’re exercising because you “have to” (lower quality motivation), that’s when you’re likely to drop in and out and feel bad about yourself.

The best way to feel good about yourself and your exercise is to find something you enjoy (if this seems miles away right now, you might be interested to read my blog about learning to love exercise).  

Photo by Capstone Events on Unsplash

But amidst busy lives and multiple responsibilities, sometimes enjoyment isn’t enough.  Setting yourself a personal exercise goal (e.g. to walk a mile a day) can help get you started.  And you can increase the likelihood of achieving this by fitting it in with your lifestyle (e.g. walking part of the way to work) or aligning it with your personal values (e.g. doing some volunteering that involves walking).  Which in turn will make you more likely to “want to” do it.  

What happens when motivation is lower in quality?

Exercise motivation becomes unhelpful when it is underpinned by pressure.   Pressure from others, pressure from yourself, pressure from the media or social media.  That feeling that you “should” exercise and it is a chore. 

Although your friends might mean well by putting pressure on you, this can be unhelpful

In the first place, you’re not likely to keep doing it if you don’t want to do it.   The first chance you get to make an excuse, you’re outta’ there.    But equally important, motivation driven by pressure can negatively affect mental wellbeing. You feel bad about yourself and your exercise, and constantly feel a nagging pressure that you “should” be doing things differently. 

But can’t pressure sometimes be a good thing?

Yes – there are occasional times when a one-off “push” from a friend, health professional or coach might be helpful.  As this can encourage you to try something new that you otherwise wouldn’t have discovered (or dared to try).  For example, if your friend dragged you to Parkrun and you then realise what an amazing, free, life-changing initiative Parkrun is! (do you like what I did there?  Check out Parkrun, it’s great).   But this works best if once you’re there, your friend eases off on the pressure and lets you find meaning in the activity yourself (rather than just doing it to please your friend).  

Reflecting on your own exercise motivation

It’s normal for motivation to fluctuate, and as you’ve been reading this article you can probably relate to the different types of motivation I’ve talked about.  Take a minute now to think about your own exercise motivation.  Is your motivation mostly helpful or unhelpful at the moment? 

Particularly in the last year, Covid-19 restrictions and additional life pressures might have influenced your relationship with exercise. 

Do any of the following feel familiar? 

  • Not feeling like exercise is important at the moment
  • Feeling like exercise is something you “should” do but don’t “want” to do
  • Losing confidence in how to exercise
  • Missing the accountability of regular classes or friends to exercise with
  • Having too much else going on in life

These are just some of the factors that might cause your exercise motivation to dwindle.  If these sound familiar to you, have a look at this article from Dr Ian Taylor at Loughborough University – he provides some great tips for getting back on track with exercise.      

How to keep exercise motivation helpful

Motivation is complex and will vary over time.  Try these simple strategies to help keep you motivated, which in turn will help you stay active and feel good about yourself. 

Think about what is important to you and what you enjoy

This doesn’t have to be things we typically think of as exercise or sports.   For example, you might find your joy through dancing in the kitchen, through helping to deliver food parcels, or through a practice of Tai Chi in the park.    This Girl Can campaign from Sport England has loads of inspirational ideas for making activities fun in normal lives (and men, please don’t be put off by the campaign title – most of this is just as applicable for you!).  

Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

Set yourself a goal that is important to you

What do you want to achieve and why?  If getting fitter is important to you, try and write down what difference it would make in your life (writing things down can help us learn about our values and strengthen our commitment).  Then start small and build up.  For example if you don’t run at all now you could try the Couch 2 5K programme.   Or if you’re sitting too much at the moment (like me!), you could set a goal to  take a short break every hour.   These small goals may not sound much now, but over time small steps lead to big changes.   And remember to give yourself a pat on the back for each small step you achieve – this is how confidence starts to grow.  

Identify and let go of pressure

If you’re feeling like you “should” exercise more, try and identify where this pressure is coming from.    Is it from yourself?  Is it because you don’t think you’re doing what the media says you should be doing or what someone in your family wants you to do?   Or perhaps you’re always comparing yourself to others on Facebook or Instagram? (remember these images aren’t representative – for every person who posts a super-achievement on social media, there are hundreds of us getting on with normal lives and not posting about it).  Try giving yourself a break – focus on you and what’s right for you, not on what others think.   It’s amazing how liberating “letting go” can feel.

Remember every movement counts (try to avoid “all or none” thinking)

You don’t need to be working out for hours to gain health benefits.    Even a 10-minute walk a day can help reduce blood pressure, improve mood and reduce anxiety.     The problem with “all or none” thinking is that we can spend too long waiting for the perfect moment to do that workout, then when the time comes we realise we’ve only got a 20-minute window and decide it’s not worth bothering.   

What’s better – walking just half a mile a day, or getting to the end of the week and realising you haven’t been out of the house for days? (because you were planning a daily 3-mile walk and it never happened)

Try and move away from the idea that only big gains count.   Instead focus on the idea that “anything is better than nothing”. Try moving a little, moving often, and finding ways of fitting activity into your day. 

Involve others

The social benefits of exercise are really important, especially at the moment where we have so many social restrictions upon us.   Think about how your family and friends can help you – it might just be talking to them about your goals, or it might be agreeing on a shared challenge, or meeting a friend for a walk in your local park (Covid-restrictions permitting). 

Remember it’s motivation quality not quantity that counts.   
Feeling like you “should exercise” will keep getting you down.   Feeling like you “want to” exercise will keep you going. 

PS Everything I’ve said about motivation doesn’t just apply to exercise, it applies to life!

Comments

As I’ve spent most of my career writing academic research papers, I’m pretty new to blogging and have been learning loads from Hubspot bloggers.  I’d love to hear your feedback, so please use the comments below to tell me what you like, what you don’t, and any questions you’d like me to cover in future blogs. 

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Dr Paula Watson is a HCPC-registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, Director of Made Up to Move Ltd and part-time lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.  

Made Up to Move offers affordable psychology services to help people with the mental aspects of exercise and physical activity.   If you’d like further support in understanding and changing your own relationship with exercise, please get in touch about 1-to-1 mentoring (currently free).  

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