In my last blog, I talked about how presence transforms struggles into joy. In applying this to exercise, I highlighted that struggles with exercise happen when the way you are approaching exercise leaves you feeling like you don’t have enough of what you need to do it, like time, energy, motivation, know-how. It is even a greater struggle when exercise leaves you feeling like you are not enough: not thin enough, toned enough, fit enough, strong enough, tough enough, flexible enough.
This understanding about the struggles with exercise comes from years of learning from the stories of people who have found their way out of their quiet struggle with doing enough exercise and is backed by scientific evidence about motivation. Without going into all the details of scientific theories, we know that human motivation is grounded in the fact that humans are hardwired with a natural tendency toward growth and progress. But this natural tendency for motivation needs three key ingredients. If they are missing, we recoil from growth opportunities. If they are present, we thrive because challenges motivate us to grow stronger.
Exercise: an opportunity for growth that is often missing key ingredients for motivation
Exercise is a tremendous opportunity for growth both physically and mentally. We all know it, and that may be part of the problem. The scientific theories that have been well-tested in many areas of motivation, from education to health care, tell us that being told over and over again that you should do something, no matter how much information you have about why it would be good for you, actually backfires when the other ingredients needed for motivation are not present.
Knowing you ‘should’ exercise could be the reason you are not doing it
Motivation for exercise simplified by science
The three key ingredients for motivation that I describe below are not separate, but like the ingredients in a cake, interact with one another and change when the environment (i.e., life) changes. Staying motivated to exercise is not as easy as following the directions on the box of a cake mix, but what this science does is help you strip away all that is not helpful. Like a sculptor creating art from a block of stone, science allows us to stay focused on what is most important, revealing our natural motivation.
The three ingredients for exercise motivation for health and well-being
Feeling in control of your own behaviors and goals. When you are told you ‘should’ exercise, there is a part of your brain that says ‘no, I want to do what I want to do’. The fact that ‘should’ shows up on nearly every page of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans indicates we have a ways to go before we learn how to tap into our natural motivation. This is where your core Why comes in. It takes you below the ‘should’ level of exercising and into the ‘want to’ level because you are connecting your motivation to what you value most. This puts you back in control of your own goals for exercise from the moment you start and in every movement you choose.
The ability to do something successfully. If memories of grade school gym class make you cringe, if you walk into a gym and feel completely overwhelmed, or your last attempt to start an exercise program was nothing more than a reminder of how out of shape you are, exercise can be associated with failure. We are so used to describing success with exercise in terms of external accomplishments—achieving a look, a certain weight, or completing a marathon—that we have lost sight of what kind of success taps into the natural motivation we all have. External success is future-focused and temporary. Internal success is present and lasting.
What is internal success with exercise? It is how you feel: mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. External success often creates an internal feeling of happiness and satisfaction, so it feels motivating. That good mental and emotional feeling can cause us to overlook the physical experience, even if it includes pain or discomfort. But the brain does not overlook the physical experience; it makes a note to avoid this activity in the future. In the end over-reliance on external success leads to difficulty staying motivated. When you don’t ‘see results’ your brain will give you excuses why you should not exercise. This explains why working hard with exercise to achieve a goal weight so often leads to loss of motivation to keep that weight off. When you know how to exercise in the ways that leave you feeling better mentally, emotionally, and physically, you add this powerful ingredient of internal success to your exercise motivation toolbox.
Sense of belonging. We are hardwired for connection. Those experiences of ‘failure’ with exercise from childhood gym class or being uncomfortable in a gym or exercise class as an adult not only lower your internal success confidence level, they interrupt your sense of belonging. When the limitations of your body leave you feeling disconnected from a group, whether it is your family, friends, or a group of strangers in a Zumba class, your brain’s natural motivation to exercise will take a nosedive. The luxury we have in modern life is that we can connect in many other ways while we are rebuilding our body’s ability to participate in activities that keep us connected. Exercising at home, at a level and pace that is just right for your body, so you feel internally successful with exercise, keeps your motivation strong while your body gains the strength, stamina, and mobility you need for the activities you want to do with others.
Exercising is about so much more than exercise
With these three ingredients working together, exercise motivation is natural and self-sustaining. This is important because exercise is so much more than physical fitness. Exercise represents your ability to express who you are, live the way you want, and stay connected to others. When these basic ingredients for motivation are incorporated into exercise, they overflow into other areas of life like career and relationships.
Enjoy Exercising and Be WELL,
P.S. These three ingredients are seamlessly integrated into every exercise and approach to goal-setting in Exercising WELL. Turn exercise from a ‘should’ to a resource for your whole person to feel and function better now and in the future. Last chance to become a member for 30% less. Click here to learn more and enroll with no long-term commitment, only long-term health and well-being.
Teixeira, P.J., Carraça, E.V., Markland, D. et al. Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 9, 78 (2012).
Rodrigues F, Teixeira DS, Cid L, Machado S, Monteiro D. The role of dark-side of motivation and intention to continue in exercise: A self-determination theory approach. Scand J Psychol. 2019;60(6):585‐595. doi:10.1111/sjop.12582
Martyn Standage, PhD, Sport and Exercise Editor, “Sports and Exercise, overview” Selfdeterminationtheory.org