Getting fit is certainly a worthwhile goal. After all, you’ve got only one body to get you through this lifetime, so it’s important to take very good care of it. However, fitness doesn’t come without consistent effort and discipline – and both of those require a good deal of motivation. While some people seem to have an endless supply of motivation, many find that a lack of it is one of their biggest obstacles when it comes to fitness.
People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily. ~ Zig Ziglar
If you like to make New Year’s resolutions, getting in shape has probably been on your list at least a few times over the years. There’s nothing like a brand new year to compel you to dust off the stationary bike – the one that’s been doing double duty as a clothes rack – and restart your journey to fitness.
Perhaps you can relate to this scenario…
After weeks of overindulging on holiday treats, you force yourself to stand – naked, if you’re especially masochistic – in front of a full-length mirror. You bravely assess the less-than-perfect body reflected back at you. Mustering your inner warrior as discouragement quickly starts to creep in, you declare your intentions out loud: “This is the year I’m going to tone up these flabby thighs, lose these extra 20 30 pounds once and for all, and get killer abs that even the best bodies in Hollywood would envy!”
Resisting the urge to dismiss such lofty goals and down the last of the holiday fudge instead, you fervently list your fitness goals. You download the latest fitness app to schedule your workouts for the month. Then you hop on Zappos to buy some workout apparel – the rationale being, of course, that buying new workout clothes will ensure that you stay motivated and stick with your plan. And besides, there’s nothing wrong with looking fashionable while working up a sweat, right?
For the first couple of weeks everything goes great. You’ve been consistent, lost five pounds, and every muscle in your body is no longer constantly screaming at you to stop the torture. You’re excited about your progress. You can do this!
But your new-found enthusiasm takes a hit when you find yourself skipping your next workout, exhausted after an unusually stressful day at work. No big deal, you say to yourself. It’s just one workout.
Before you know it, one skipped workout becomes two, and suddenly a whole week’s gone by and you haven’t worked out once. All that initial enthusiasm and seems to have withered as abruptly as a rose without water – and January’s not even over!
Between work demands, family obligations, and binge-watching all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad (the DVD set was a Christmas gift), finding the time and energy to work out has become very difficult. Sigh. So many good intentions. What the heck happened to all that initial motivation?
How Motivation Works
Motivation, in a nutshell, is what drives you to do something and enables you to stick with it – even when you get bored, feel like giving up, or encounter obstacles that hinder your progress.
Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation
Motivation can be “intrinsic”, meaning that the inspiration or driving force comes from within, such as the enjoyment or gratification you obtain from reaching a goal or completing a task. It can also be “extrinsic”, meaning the incentive is external, such as winning an award, receiving praise, or earning money for your accomplishment.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit it what keeps you going”. ~ Jim Rohn
In his book The Power of Habit, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg discusses how extrinsic motivators can be very beneficial, especially at first. For example, rewarding yourself with something tangible (e.g. a relaxing bubble bath or favorite TV show) for powering through a tough workout will increase the likeliness that you’ll make working out a habit. This is particularly true if you don’t enjoy working out just for the sake of it – at least initially. Once something becomes a habit it requires a lot less motivation to continue doing it.
Over time, the motivation will often become intrinsic. Even if the workout itself isn’t fun (60 minutes of spinning class, anyone?), the great feeling you experience afterwards (exercise releases mood boosting brain chemicals) can become a powerful enough motivator to keep doing it regularly. In fact, you’ll no longer need the external reward.
Three Parts of Motivation
Motivation is actually made up of three parts:
• Decision to act
• Ongoing effort
• Degree of effort
Decision to act – If you want to get fit you won’t move towards – let alone ever reach – your goals until you make a conscious decision to start engaging in some sort of fitness activity. Just thinking about it won’t get you anywhere – you have to decide to do something.
Ongoing effort – Once you establish a goal you must continue working towards it. This is a crucial part of motivation because getting started is one thing (and even that’s hard for a lot of people), but continuing to stick with it is another. This aspect of motivation is where a lot of people struggle, especially after the initial enthusiasm wears off.
Degree of effort – The third part of motivation is the amount of effort you put into your reaching your goals. If you always do easy workouts that don’t challenge your body, you’re not going to increase your level of fitness. The harder you work towards achieving your fitness goals, the greater gains you’ll make (with the exception of over-training). This is another important aspect of motivation.
If you want to get in shape, you need motivation to decide to start exercising, put in ongoing effort, and not slack off when you are working out.
Are Some People Just Naturally Motivated?
You’ve probably met or personally know at least one enviable really annoying fitness fanatic who seems to have copious amounts of motivation. You know the type – the person who jumps out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to hit the gym, never misses a workout(even on holidays), disdains the use of elevators, and has iron-clad willpower that makes resisting even the most decadent treat an effortless endeavor. (Did I say annoying?)
Are people like that born with all that motivation? Does it just come naturally or do they simply know some secret – one to which the rest of us mere mortals don’t seem to be privy?
We’re all born with different temperaments, natural strengths, and proclivities, so it’s certainly true that some people are more naturally driven than others. But that natural drive is only part of the picture. A combination of other factors impacts your motivation quotient as well, such as the impact of childhood and adult role models, life experiences (particularly past successes and failures), limiting beliefs, and how much support you have in your life.
So even if you weren’t blessed with a strong natural drive to reach every fitness and weight loss goal you set, that doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a rotund, out of shape couch potato for the rest of your life. Nor does it give you an excuse to give up on your fitness goals – in case you were hoping for an easy out. There are plenty of things you can do to boost your motivation to get fit (just keep reading).
Gaining Pleasure versus Avoiding Pain
Motivation ultimately boils down to two things – gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Experts assert that avoiding pain is instinctual – and thus a more powerful motivator than gaining pleasure. Imagining all the pain you will avoid by getting fit will can help boost your motivation significantly.
Pleasure and pain are really two sides of the same coin. For example, the pain you avoid by getting fit includes decreased mobility as you age, increased risk for a plethora of health issues, and disliking the way you look and feel. But the pleasure you’ll gain includes increased mobility in your golden years, feeling and looking better, and a decreased risk for multiple health issues – same coin, different side. Avoiding pain is a powerful motivator, but it can also help to consider all the pleasure you’ll gain from getting fit.
Ultimately, what matters most is figuring out what, specifically, motivates you. What pain do you want to avoid? What pleasure do you want to gain? For example, if your mother or grandmother suffers from severe osteoporosis, the fear of a similar fate may be a strong motivator to start doing weight-bearing exercises today. Looking better naked is certainly a pleasurable “side effect”, but it may not be sufficient to drive your fitness efforts.
Unfortunately, the pleasure / pain principle can work against your motivation to get fit. Let’s face it: it’s highly (and instantly) pleasurable to just stay home and relax rather than go to the gym. You’ll also avoid the pain of sore muscles, having to change clothes, drive in traffic, and experience the potential embarrassment of letting others see how out of shape you are.
If you’re struggling with finding sufficient motivation – to determine what really matters and motivate you – you may need to dig deep within. If you’ve been focusing only on the pleasure you’d gain from getting fit, consider all the pain you’ll be avoiding. Picture it vividly in your mind. Don’t just imagine the pain you’ll avoid years down the road; focus on the pain you’re experiencing now as well (e.g. poor sleep, excess weight, or feeling self-conscious about your body).
Can You “Practice” Being Motivated?
Yes, in a sense.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of “acting as if” in order to change how you feel. For example, research has shown that acting “as if” you’re happy by smiling will actually make you feel happier. If you’re lacking confidence, you can make yourself feel more confident by acting confident (e.g. standing tall and looking people in the eye). This concept – that behavior can influence and change your emotions – was first introduced by psychologist and philosopher William James over a century ago.
The “act as if” principle can be applied to just about anything – including motivation. You can essentially practice being motivated by acting as if you already are. When it comes to fitness, one of the best ways to do this is by taking just a few minutes to do the initial behaviors involved in an activity. For example, if your goal is to take a 30-minute brisk walk each day, commit to at least changing your clothes (if needed), putting on your walking shoes, and going outside. Walk 50 yards or so. Go back inside after that if you like, but do at least that much each day. Once you take just that initial action you’ll likely find yourself feeling motivated to do your 30-minute walk!
Even world class athletes have days where they don’t feel like working out. But if they just go ahead and do it, they often find that the motivation to work out quickly follows.
Tips for Motivating Yourself to Get Fit
Acting as if is just one of many ways you can boost your motivation to get fit. Following are several tips to help you:
• Set realistic goals for yourself – Setting goals can really help you get motivated, because it gives you something to strive for. But here’s the caveat: Make sure they’re truly realistic. If you’re 60 pounds overweight and haven’t exercised in 20 years, completing a marathon in the next 6 months isn’t a realistic goal. Setting unrealistic goals sets you up for failure. Your enthusiasm and motivation will eventually – if not quickly – be replaced with discouragement.
You can always set new, bigger goals each time you reach your current ones. You’ll be much more likely stay motivated and succeed with incremental fitness goals.
• Be sure to write them down – There’s something inherently powerful about committing your goals to paper. Review your goals regularly, and don’t be afraid to adjust them as needed. Writing them down doesn’t set them in stone, but it does show that you mean business.
• Focus on (and enjoy) the short-term benefits – Although long-term health gains are one of the greatest benefits of getting fit, researchers have found that they’re not the most effective motivator for most people. When it comes to with sticking with a fitness program, focusing on and relishing the relatively instant (i.e. same-day) benefits of working out can really help keep you motivated over the long haul.
In addition to the endorphin release triggered by moderate to vigorous exercise, a good workout can help reduce anxiety, boost your mood, enable you to “clear your head”, help you think more clearly, and help ensure a good night’s sleep.
• Track your progress – Success breeds success. One of the secrets to staying motivated is keeping track of the progress you’ve made. Each success – no matter how small – is worth noting. Whenever you need to boost your motivation, review the progress you’ve made so far. When you feel like quitting, it’s easier to keep going when you see how far you’ve already come.
• Make exercise fun – One of the biggest motivation killers is continually forcing yourself to do an activity you find boring, or worse – one you absolutely hate. For example, if you don’t like running, try cycling or Zumba for your cardio workout. Switch up your fitness activities as well. For example, a day of skiing or an afternoon of ultimate Frisbee are great workouts.
• Workout with others – Working out with a partner, friend, or small group of friends can also make exercise more fun. Additionally, when you’ve made plans to meet someone for a workout you’re much more likely to follow through.
• Focus on the journey, not the destination – This is especially important if you’re just getting started on the path to fitness. Many people find it difficult to stay motivated if they focus primarily on results that may take months or even years to achieve. Focus instead on the process, such as how working out makes you feel (e.g. the pleasurable short-term benefits you experience) and what you’re learning about yourself along the way.
• Resist comparing yourself with others – This is your journey, your body, and your life – each is unique to you. The only person you need to compare yourself to is yourself. There will always be someone who can run faster, lift heavier, swing harder, or swim farther than you. Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the comparison trap.
Focus on and take pride in your progress and accomplishments, because in the end, those are the only ones that count!
Use these tips to bolster your motivation as you embark on your fitness journey. Expect your motivation to ebb and flow – because it will. That’s perfectly normal. Take your fitness journey one day at a time. Before long, you’ll find that you’re in better shape than you ever thought possible!