The Science Behind Workout Motivation

workout motivation

Motivation to work out is like a golden ticket. We all wish we had an endless supply of overflowing motivation to hit the gym, trail or studio to help us maintain a fitness routine. However, on the contrary, you might find yourself sitting in front of the TV (or your computer reading this) with every bone in your body fighting the urge to break a sweat.

When it comes to maintaining a steady fitness routine, motivation plays a big role in staying consistent and committed. Rather than exerting large amounts of energy to overhaul your mindset to get off the couch, let’s start to understand how different types of motivation impacts our behavior so we can leverage these as tools to get us moving with ease.

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation

There are two different types of motivation that are a result of internal and external factors. Meaning, intrinsic motivation is motivation generated internally. You perform a task because you enjoy it, not because you want external recognition (like a high score, award, treat, etc.). An example of a person that’s intrinsically motivated is an endurance athlete who can go for miles because she loves it. She has internal interest to run or ride long distances, which seems crazy to those who don’t like to run because they have no interest in the experience to generate intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation on the other hand is when your actions are driven by external rewards such as money, a prize, recognition or a medal. Crossing a finish line or achieving a goal time might be enough of an external motivating factor to get that person who usually doesn’t like to run long distances, to train for a race.

When we think about these internal and external forms of motivation as it relates to fitness, intrinsic motivation comes from us doing what we love – which enables us to stay committed to a routine. If you love to do something, you’ll have no problem repeating the action. Extrinsic motivation usually comes from us receiving something as a result – like a top score in class (we see you Flywheel addicts) or a pedicure to treat yourself after a long run. We use these “rewards” as ways to condition ourselves into pushing through something we’re not as easily motivated to do.

What this means for your workout:

We all face a variety of personal challenges when it comes to working out; the important part is identifying why you’re lacking motivation. Don’t like your current gym or studio? You’re attempting to train for your first road race and you don’t like to run? Once you’re at the gym you get distracted halfway through your workout? … Literally, the list goes on. Once you start to recognize where your motivation is lacking, you can tap into intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to ramp it back up.

Based on what we know about fitness routines and motivation – we’ve compiled a list of considerations to boost your motivation for workouts to come:

Do what you love: It’s that simple. We’re motivated more easily to do something that we actually want to do. Doing what you love doesn’t just need to be an activity either – you can be more motivated to go to a gym or studio you love, to have a playlist you love, or an instructor you love. Tap into what makes you feel good and that will keep you coming back for more.

Treat yourself: On days when you’re tired, resulting in a lack of motivation to get to the gym, use extrinsic motivation to get you there. If your favorite spin class isn’t enough to get you off the couch, tell yourself that after class you can have a latte from the local coffee shop, or pick up dinner rather than cook. Extrinsic motivation works when there is a particular moment in time that we’re feeling unmotivated – especially to do something that we usually love.

 Mini motivators: Extrinsic motivation can be a really powerful motivator during your actual workout. If you push hard for 30 seconds, you’ll get a 20 second break. After this cardio burst, you get water. Trainers and instructors use extrinsic motivation to encourage and push students throughout the workout which helps pass the time and also gets them working harder, by motivating them at various points throughout the workout. Try to apply this work/reward conditioning if you’re working out alone too.

Find the positives: You’ll hear a lot of people say that they’re signing up for a race as motivation to get in shape. This is a great example of people being motivated by external factors such as achieving a goal, earning a medal or meeting a specific time. They wouldn’t be motivated to get out running four to five days each week if they didn’t have something waiting for them at the finish line. We agree – this is a great tool – but where you’ll fall short is when you don’t find enjoyment in the 16 weeks of training. As you begin running, or taking on any activity that doesn’t particularly interest you, find something (anything!) that you love about it. Being outside, enjoying the company of a running group, feeling accomplished. Those internal factors that you love will more easily motivate you to get out the door.

Make a habit: Use internal and external motivators to set a habit of working out. Find something you love that you’ll repeatedly do – repetition over time will result in a habit that will require less motivation as you’ll start to go through the motions on autopilot. Don’t focus on making it the most intense workout right from the get go; get in the habit of going to the gym and easing your way into a “plan” that will stick. Once you’re comfortable going to the gym on a regular basis, you can start increasing the intensity of your workout. In the beginning stages of getting yourself to the gym, try using external motivators – like new shoes, a Spotify subscription for pump-up music or a new gym membership – something that will be an extra motivator to push you into a rhythm of working out regularly.

Keep in mind, even for the most fitness-focused, sometimes motivation is lacking – that’s totally normal. Figure out why you’re lacking motivation and tap into what you know about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to get you up and out the door. No matter how hard it is to get yourself to the gym, know that you’ll never regret the workout.

Let us know!

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About Kelly Molnar

A marketing manager by day, Kelly Magnus has serious passion for keeping active. Kelly believes in making fitness fun by sweating with friends at events like #Sweatworking, or morning run meet-ups. Aside from her day job, she’s an age-group triathlete having completed sprint to half-iron distance races. She’s also a yoga instructor and you can find her teaching strength classes at Studio Three in Chicago. Kelly's hope is that her writing on aSweatLife inspires everyone, no matter their fitness level, to get moving. Kelly is from Wisconsin and attended the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

3 thoughts on “The Science Behind Workout Motivation

  1. This is such great advice. I think my initial motivation for working out was trying to find free classes (I love a deal), and eventually working out just became habit!

  2. Great advice and motivation, I am hitting the floor for a burpee, abs and push up workout and then hopping on the bike, stair climber and elliptical. Thanks for getting me up and moving.

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