In my last blog, I brought up self-motivation and how we rarely build that skill when it comes to exercise. Instead, we are flooded with external motivators, making us less confident we can trust ourselves to take care of our own health.

According to a well-tested motivation theory, self-motivation happens when three basic conditions are met. These conditions are universal. They are instinctive. They apply across time, gender, and culture. Exercise self-motivation, however, has its own unique considerations, because we are not just dealing with the brain, but the body too.

Think of all the ways we talk about exercise: ‘no pain, no gain’, ‘I felt a good soreness’, ‘I hate exercise but have to lose weight, ‘just get it done’.  Consider that the top fitness trend right now is High Intensity Interval Training (AKA exercise at a level of all-out effort). Now consider the process our brain uses for choosing to do or avoid something. Neuroscientists call this the Habit Loop:

the habit loop 3.png

  1. Stimulus: A cue in your environment or a thought in your mind.
  2. Action:What you do in response to that stimulus.
  3. Reward: The instant effect of that action. If it makes you instantly feel better, your brain will log a positive memory attached to that word, image, or action. If it makes you feel instantly worse, mentally or physically, your brain will log a negative memory attached to that word or action.
  • The more consistently positive the memories for a stimulus, the more likely it is to become a habit.
  • The more consistently negative the memories for this stimulus, the more likely you will be to avoid that action.

Bottom line: When exercise is associated with pain, embarrassment, fatigue, stress, failure, injury, or discomfort, you are training your brain to avoid exercise.  

Are you seeing how this huge catch-22 has us stuck?! How did we get into this mess?

  • Where do most people first experience exercise? By playing sports as a kid.
  • What images are used in the fitness media? People pushing their bodies to accomplish a goal (e.g., athletic training).
  • Where do many of the “fitness experts” get their start? As athletes.
  • Who are our most popular heroes? Athletes, superheroes, and other people who achieve super-human feats with their minds and bodies.

When training to compete, and achieve super-human feats, you do need to push your body beyond its limits. Pain, fatigue, and sweat are a natural byproduct of that type of exercise. For healthy-person exercise, however, none of those are required, but athletic training is so enmeshed in our culture and way of approaching exercise that we think pain and fatigue are a natural part of exercise. No wonder we have trained our brain to avoid it!

Can we retrain our brains to exercise? Yes!  By blending brain science with movement science and your Why for exercising, you have the ideal conditions for exercise self-motivation.

Brain movement

Stay tuned for my next three blog posts to learn about the three basic conditions for self-motivation, and how they apply to exercise.

Rethink This Week: Notice the ‘data’ your brain has accumulated about exercise from messages and experiences. What is the balance of positive to negative?