How Exercise Motivation Really Works

exercise motivation

Positive feedback is essential in helping people to stay motivated whilst pursuing any goal.

However, research suggests that the increasing popularity of activity trackers (wearable’s) do not help most people achieve long-term motivation when it comes to exercise.

Once the initial novelty (and intention) fades – and life circumstances intervene – motivation wanes.

Whether the shiny new tool is a video, a class, a gym membership, a celebrity instructor, a machine, or a wearable technology; there’s a common trajectory …

The promise of getting the hoped-for results motivate for a while,
but quickly takes a backseat when life’s hurdles and obstacles surface.

In general, motivation energizes us to pursue our goals and values.

With exercise, motivation stems  from a person’s primary reason for starting to exercise and then influences whether they stay motivated over time.

Collecting exercise statistics might motivate at first and encourage people to do more.

However, trackers – or quantifying behavior – may actually reduce how much they enjoy their  activities, by drawing their attention to output rather than input.

Intrinsic Motivation
When people deeply value the benefits they get from exercising and/or the inherent pleasure it brings, they are more likely to continue with it.

Hence, unless trackers ally with a strong internal motivation for being physically active, they often are not strong enough to pick up the motivational slack.

Most people exercise to lose weight, to look better or to improve their health.

This turns being active from something people want to do to a chore they feel obligated to do.

Plus it’s hard for exercise (that aims to achieve a vague future outcome) to crowd out urgent and unexpected life tasks against which they constantly compete.

People make time for what’s essential.

They also make time for experiences that help them feel good.

Even when people say they are motivated to pursue a behavior to achieve a goal in the future, it is usually the immediate rewards that actually predict persistence toward that goal.

Weight loss and health goals set most people up to fail because they do not make exercise sufficiently relevant and compelling enough versus people’s other daily goals / roles.

When we are less stressed and more energized, we enjoy life more and perform better in key life roles. Positive lifestyle behaviors lead (almost immediately) to increased productivity, focus and life satisfaction.

When people continue to enjoy the experience, their motivation becomes self-perpetuating:
they want to keep having these experiences: Listening to high-energy music; walking for 10 minutes with a partner for connection; being in the present moment when swimming; sharing laughter during a workout.

To strive for a future oriented goal, you need to figure out how to convert it into “how it feels right now.” Here are 3 ways to do just that:

Harness your values by identifying your motivation.

Relate losing weight and improving health to how you feel now.

Imbue it with a specific meaning and purpose in your life.

Know its specific value and relevance to your daily life.

Does it feel good? Are you having fun?

This strongly influences whether you desire to do it again.

The way many people are encouraged to approach being physically active (work hard, break a sweat) may actually turn them off of exercising. Know that all types of movement can be beneficial.

This involves successfully foreseeing and dealing with the inevitable conflicts between your exercise and life plans that will arise.

It also involves feeling generally more competent when it comes to physical activity.

This requires a subtle shift in mindset: focusing on learning instead of achieving.

Not aiming for perfection (weight lost, minutes spent exercising etc.) but seeing it as a journey on which you are constantly course-correcting.

Start small. Set realistic weekly plans (ones that you can succeed with).

At the same time, “flex” your weekly plans and goals, as the need arises.

Trackers plus exercise can help you:

(a) become mindful of the immediate positive emotions that exercise brings

(b) internalize the concrete value exercise delivers to your sense of self and to your daily life.


In Category: Exercise

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WellCoach Noel Lyons holds a Masters degree in Exercise + Health Science. Mixing 30 years experience with Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Sports Science and Best Practice, Noel coaches high performers worldwide to thrive (both personally & professionally) by maximising their Wellbeing levels.