So you’ve carefully curated your new workout playlist, all of your nutritious meals are prepped and in place for the week ahead and those new trainers are ready to clock some serious kilometres on your morning runs before work. Surely, this time you have all your ducks in a row to succeed in your gloriously structured exercise routine. Then… after a month or so, the initial surge of motivation has started to wane and snoozing through those Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson-inspired 4am alarms seem more appealing than getting up and hitting the pavement with those new trainers. Oh…and you only got 7.5 hours of sleep instead of the usual 8 hours. Plus, it’s too cold outside.
Indeed, the novelty of new and exciting health pursuits can also possess a polarising dark side when our motivation is derailed, negatively affecting our relationship with physical activity. So despite being abundantly aware of all the positive benefits that accompany exercise, why do so many of us still experience these motivational low points and eventually lose interest with their routine altogether? Interestingly, the problem may not necessarily be attributed to levels of motivation, but rather an absence of effective motivation, which can make a significant difference in achieving long-term success in any health pursuit.
A prominent model used to explain the motivations that drive our behaviours toward exercise is the Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The theory presents three main types of motivations in humans:
Amotivated individuals possess a complete lack of intention to engage in a behaviour and results from not valuing the activity, feeling incompetent to engage in it, and/or not feeling that it will produce any desired outcomes. Personally, I’ve interacted with people of this mindset and some may believe that exercising might actually be more harmful to their health. They may conveniently use anomalies in the fitness scene, citing incidences of runners “dropping dead” from a heart attack as their justified reasoning to not exercise.
Moving along the continuum, extrinsic motivation is when a person’s behaviour is primarily controlled by the desire to gain external rewards or to avoid punishment, separate from the activity itself. There are 4 different subtypes of extrinsic motivation, including behaviours which are based on:
- Rewards and punishments administered by others.
- wanting to reduce body fat in order to avoid being told off by their doctor to prevent chronic disease.
- Control by consequences administered by the individual themselves.
- wanting to build muscle to improve appearance and improve confidence.
- Engaging in an activity because the person knows it is important.
- wanting to reduce high blood pressure because of the health incentive of attaining a healthy measurement.
- Placing a value of importance as part of their identity.
- wanting to lose body fat because they value health as part of their core belief system.
Lastly, intrinsic motivation occurs when performing an activity because the act itself is inherently satisfying. An intrinsically motivated person would play a sport for the pure enjoyment it creates within, or because they want to challenge themselves to become more competent at it. Furthermore, once people gain increased competency in an activity, they may enter an optimal state of consciousness and awareness termed as “flow” (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). This is achieved when the challenge of the task is perfectly matched to the skill level of the participant. Experiencing “flow’ has been closely linked to enjoyment because individuals are fully immersed in the present moment and in the task at hand to the point where they often lose perception of time. Sometimes described by being “in the zone,” reaching this state of flow allows an athlete to experience a loss of self-consciousness and a sense of complete mastery of the performance.
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic: Which is Better?
Although both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be beneficial for achieving your goals, using purely extrinsic rewards as a source of motivation is often fleeting and is typically unsustainable in the end. Whilst extrinsic motives are more effective when initially adopting an exercise program, evidence strongly suggests that placing a higher value on intrinsic motivation is critical for exercise adherence in the long-term.
Shifting Toward Intrinsic Motivation
According to Self-Determination Theory, a shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation is promoted by the fulfillment of three following basic psychological needs:
- Autonomy – person feeling in control of their choices and actions.
- Competency – feeling capable and proficient in an activity.
- Relatedness – having satisfying and supportive social relationships.
The more a person becomes aligned with the needs above, the higher the likelihood they are to be intrinsically motivated. To shift your motives toward more intrinsic-based types, evaluate the following strategies and see how many you can implement to stay on track:
Discover Activities That You Enjoy
I’ve noticed that the individuals who frequently show up to group classes and train consistently at our corporate gyms exhibit one common trait – they seem to be genuinely enjoying the activity they’re engaged in. Many have found joy by training with gym partners (great for accountability) or by finding an appealing mode of exercise they can gain competency in. Within our facilities, there are many opportunities to be active in a group setting with programs ranging from boxing, resistance/cardio circuits, yoga and high-intensity interval training classes. By exploring different types of exercise, you may find something that you enjoy and can maintain over time, whilst also gaining an element of social support to your training.
Start Slowly and Learn The Fundamentals
A common pitfall of many exercisers (especially beginners) is trying to do too much, too soon. When they find the exercise or program too difficult and are unable to perform as well as they expected, they get frustrated, possibly injured, demotivated and eventually give up. By reframing exercise as a skill which takes time and practice to develop, you’ll be able to safely and effectively progress. Making the commitment and effort to learn how to perform basic exercises proficiently can go a long way towards increasing feelings of competency. Whenever introducing beginners to resistance exercise, I always ensure that they begin with the fundamental movements and perform them with quality before adding load or advancing the movement. Once they achieve mastery of a movement, the aforementioned ”flow” state may be within their grasp as they progress, further reinforcing intrinsic motivation.
Track Your Progress and Be Mindful
Recording your exercise sessions is a great way to recognise the improvements you’ve made. Keeping a log of your workouts by taking physical notes outlining key details such as the date and details of your session including exercises, sets, reps, distance and time. Additionally, keeping track of how you felt during each exercise will help you cultivate mindfulness around your sessions and identify aspects of your workout that you enjoyed (e.g. sense of accomplishment when you add more weight to your lifts). All of which contribute to the notion of competency.
As an Exercise Consultant at Absolute Balance, it has been very interesting to observe underlying client motivations and how they function as indicators of exercise adherence. People are unique and will undertake exercise routines for a multitude of reasons, however determining whether you are intrinsically or extrinsically inclined toward your goals may help uncover whether your plan is truly sustainable. You don’t need to completely abandon your extrinsic motivations but if you want to achieve long-term success, you do need to develop some intrinsic motivation and derive a genuine sense of enjoyment and competence in whatever form of exercise you choose to commit to.
For more information on how to successfully set your exercise goals or to learn more about the range of group exercise classes we offer, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer, Dordrecht.