Motivation is what moves us to act.
Without motivation, we fail to start important projects, give up on things prematurely, or procrastinate on things we should be able to easily finish.
A lack of motivation, we’re told, is the reason we durdle away hundreds of hours each year scrolling through Instagram instead of reading, sitting on the couch watching Netflix instead of working out, and absentmindedly inhaling junk food instead of preparing healthy meals.
Take exercise, for example.
We all know being physically active is good for us, yet a surprisingly large proportion of people lack the motivation to complete this simple daily task.
Less than 47% of U.S. adults are regularly active and Europeans are only marginally better with 54% of people exercising regularly. Things aren’t much better in Canada, where only 16% of adults meet the nation’s recommendations for daily activity.
Although things like bad habit formation, lack of proper planning, and so forth are also to blame, there’s no getting around the fact that most people simply aren’t able or willing to motivate themselves to work out regularly.
Not all motivation is the same, though.
Many people motivate themselves by looking into the future and thinking of all of the wonderful bells and whistles they’ll be able to enjoy if they can summon enough grit to gut out exercise in the short-term.
Research shows, though, the perennial exercisers among us motivate themselves using a very different strategy.
There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it’s deeply satisfying.
When intrinsically motivated we perform activities because we want to perform them—because we love doing them—regardless of what other people think or what other benefits they might yield.
When extrinsically motivated we perform activities solely because of the benefits they yield in the future—achieving a goal, earning something valuable, or avoiding a penalty of some sort.
When we’re extrinsically motivated, we don’t do things because they give us pleasure, but instead because they will give us something else we want further down the line.
Of course, there’s plenty of overlap between these two kinds of motivation.
In many cases, people first get motivated to start working out due to extrinsic reasons, like:
- Wanting to be more attractive to potential partners
- Wanting to feel more comfortable in your own body
- Wanting to fit in a certain piece of clothing
- Wanting to look better in family pictures
- Wanting to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, or another health marker
- Wanting to complete some kind of athletic event
These are all legitimate reasons to start working out, and they can give you the momentum you need to push through your first few months or even years of working out.
The problem, though, is this kind of motivation soon loses its luster.
This is particularly true if you hit a plateau, get injured, or accomplish your goal. When the goal becomes more difficult to reach or you reach it, the game becomes less fun, and what got you into working out isn’t enough to sustain you.
So, what creates the glue that makes you stick to your new workout plan?
A wealth of research shows diet and exercise programs are much better adhered to when people are driven by intrinsic goals—the feeling of accomplishment from eating healthy, the satisfaction of getting up early to do something important to you, the sense of purpose you feel when doing a heavy set of bench press.
It’s probably not news to you that most people have become progressively more and more driven by extrinsic motivations than intrinsic ones.
Who knows, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the countless quick-fix promises advertised everywhere you look, the never ending stream of fake perfection plastered on social media, and the general decline in personal responsibility brought on by modern consumerist culture.
Anyway, let’s take a look at some common extrinsic motivations that get people in the gym, and how you can slightly change them to help you stay in the gym.
People often have clear reasons for wanting to get in shape.
They might be as simple as wanting to lose weight or look and feel better.
Whether we say them out loud or not, though, many people get interested in fitness for less socially acceptable reasons, like impressing or feeling better than others, getting likes on Instagram, and so forth.
Read on to see how each of these different motivations affects your long-term success, and how you can find better forms of motivation.
Wanting to lose weight is perhaps the most common motivation for going to the gym, and at first glance, it seems like a reasonable reason to start.
After all, what’s the problem with wanting to lose a few extra pounds when so many of us are carrying around more weight than we should?
Being motivated by weight—a number on a scale—as the single measure of your success, is a good way to get motivated to work out, but a poor way to stay motivated.
Not only does it completely discount the importance of body composition, it makes you see diet and exercise as a means to an end.
Your feeling of self-worth can be made or broken by the result you see on the scale. Drop weight by the smallest of margins and you can go about your day guilt free. Lose nothing, or—God forbid—gain weight, and your day becomes filled with self-loathing.
What’s more, when you chase a goal weight, you often place too much emphasis on the imagined, life-changing effects of what reaching that weight will be. When these expectations are not met or take too long to materialize, your motivation will inevitably dip, or more likely, completely disappear.
Even when many people reach their goal weight, they quickly lose motivation to maintain their weight because they’ve already won the game, and don’t see a reason to keep playing.
Although most people say they want to lose weight, what they actually mean is they want to lose fat—I don’t know anyone who works out to burn up all that pretty muscle they’ve spent time building.
If you’re new to proper weightlifting, it’s highly likely that you’ll build muscle and lose fat at the same time. This is called body recomposition, and can make measuring success by focusing on scale weight a frustrating business.
Take for example a 200-pound male with 20% body fat, and next to no muscle. If after 6 months of proper training, he’s decreased his body fat to 15% but added a lot of muscle, his body weight might be exactly the same as when he started, but his body composition could be completely different.
If this were you, and you were only concerned with the number on the scale, you might be tempted to give up.
After all, it would appear your diet wasn’t working. Of course, a quick look in the mirror would confirm that you had in fact made huge progress.
When you realise that body composition—or the relationship between the amount of fat and the amount of muscle you have in your body—renders the number on the scale largely irrelevant, you can make more informed, effective, productive goals for what to do with your body.
Although body composition is important, it’s still a largely extrinsic goal.
While it’s good to track your body composition, you should also focus on how your body feels when you step into the gym and you’re carrying a little less fat and a little more muscle than you were previously.
Got more energy during your workouts?
Are your reps and weights going up?
Enjoying the challenge of lifting heavy metal?
These are the things you should celebrate, because they’re the intrinsically rewarding aspects of exercising. Who cares whether the number on the scale is lower, higher, or unmoved since last week—how you feel while you use your body is what really counts.
Now let’s think about how it feels when you approach a barbell to attempt a PR: the excitement of pushing yourself, the mental geeing-up, the focus, the intensity, and the anticipation.
Relishing the challenge of working out is one of the best ways to make sure you continue your fitness journey which, assuming you ditch the noxious attachment to the scale, will likely be a long and successful one.
Summary: Don’t use bodyweight as a measure of success. Instead, track your body composition to measure your progress—and even more importantly—learn to appreciate how much better your body feels during your workouts as you get fitter.
A common modern affliction is taking, sharing and viewing an inordinately high number of pictures.
Especially (fake or doctored) pictures of pretty people.
Digesting the daily deluge of manufactured perfection we find online has us hating ourselves, and wishing desperately to be more like the beautiful, successful, and happy people we see on social media.
Spurred on by feelings of not being good enough, many people hit the gym with the goal of simply making themselves more attractive. They believe if they can get a body more similar to the ones they see on social media, they’ll be happier with themselves. No longer will they be the person gawping at beautiful people online, but instead they’ll be the person driving others crazy with their pretty pictures.
Many of these people believe having a better body will change everything. No longer will they be troubled by their dead-end jobs, tormented by their unrealised ambitions, or frustrated by their unfulfilling relationships—they will have ripped abs, bulging biceps, and a bangin’ booty, the fitness-influencer equivalent of being welcomed into Valhalla to take their place among the gods.
Wanting to look better is not something that’ll ever provide intrinsic satisfaction—for it to be at all rewarding, other people must validate the efforts you’re making through praise or admiration.
Seeking approval in this way has been proven to increase psychological distress and any number of neuroses including anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness.
When you focus on looking good, you miss out on what it means to feel good. Fortunately, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore what feeling good is like every time you step foot in the weights room.
Your time in the gym is a time to face your anxieties, fears and preconceived notions of who you are, and confront them head-on.
Standing in front of a loaded barbell has a way of testing your willpower like nothing else. To lift it is to conquer whatever self-doubt you previously had.
It presents struggles you must overcome, pain you must push through, and tests of your constitution you must endure.
The more you show up and test yourself, the more you push the boundaries of what you thought possible, the less you will think about what others think, and the more you will learn to love the process.
This focus on the process you will also free up an enormous amount of mental energy that you previously used worrying about external factors.
Once you banish the anxieties, the self-doubt, the preoccupation with results, and the obsession with other people’s opinions, you’ll have a lot more mental energy to give to the things in life you enjoy, like spending time with family, friends, or enjoying your hobbies.
Summary: Stop caring so much about how you look—being more attractive will never satisfy you intrinsically. Relish the chance to test yourself in the gym, and enjoy the mental freedom not worrying gives you—once you learn to enjoy the process, results won’t be far behind.
We are exceptionally good at telling ourselves stories.
Whether recounting the tale of a success at work, or an argument with our partner, we are deftly able to alter details and selectively remember specifics so everything fits with our preferred narrative.
When asked about our motivations to exercise, we’re quick to offer very balanced, largely intrinsic reasons: we might say we enjoy it, it’s meditative, it keeps us grounded, and so on.
Of course, these reasons also fit beautifully with the narrative we tell ourselves about being rational—it would be unlikely that people would divulge their sincere motivations if the motivations in question made them look like egotistical maniacs that want to be better than everyone else.
We have an innate drive to evaluate ourselves based on how we compare to others. Often the people we compare ourselves to are those closest to us.
Humans choose friends who’re similar to them in a variety of ways, including age, intelligence, physical attractiveness, and social class. If our friends were noticeably better than us on any of these criteria, we might lose the attentions of other people to them. If our friends were markedly lower than us on any of these criteria, they might socially repel others.
The problem with all of this is that when one of our friends starts to pull ahead of us, we start to see them as a rival. We might not talk about it, but secretly we harbor feelings of resentment towards our more intelligent, successful, or in this case, more physically attractive friends.
How do we deal with this?
We do our damnedest to close the attractiveness gap and reestablish parity, of course.
Competing with other people, especially those closest to you, won’t satisfy you intrinsically. In fact, it’s highly likely to make you very unhappy.
What would serve you well however, is some healthy competition with yourself.
Using a principle as simple as progressive overload will encourage you to set personal records in the gym, and work towards continually breaking them. It also gives you a fantastic opportunity to create optimal experiences.
Optimal experiences, as defined in the scientific literature, are occasions where we feel a sense of exhilaration or a deep sense of enjoyment.
These moments are often not passive or relaxing. They tend to occur when your body or mind is stretched to its limits in a deliberate effort to do something that’s difficult or meaningful. For example, this might be the moment of doubt that washes over you as you reach the bottom of the squat.
Re-racking that barbell having completed the rep will seem like one of the most rewarding and ecstatic moments of your life. That is, of course, until you find yourself back there again next week, when the daunting and glorious process will start over.
If you can’t be honest out loud—and let’s face it, it’s probably best you aren’t—be honest with yourself about your motivation. Don’t hide behind the lie of loving exercise when you actually only do it to keep up with the Joneses.
Finding pleasure in competing with yourself will have you going back to the gym time and time again, and hitting your workouts with focus and determination. Once you realize this, your claims of loving the gym will more likely be sincere, instead of thinly veiled untruths that cover up your actual, more competitive motivations.
Summary: Stop trying to be better than other people. The only person you need to be better than is past you.
Back in March 2014, news websites were awash with stories of a new mental disorder that was affecting the entire world.
What was the name of this terrible affliction?
Selfitis was a condition characterized by “the obsessive compulsive desire to take photos of one’s self and post them on social media as a way to make up for a lack of self-esteem and to fill a gap in intimacy.”
Selfitis was of course a hoax, but what made it so believable was the prevalence of the behaviours it poked fun at.
This also means that attention seeking—one of the key components of narcissistic behaviour—is more widespread now than ever.
Humans crave attention—it’s part of being a social species. A lot of the time, it doesn’t matter how much attention we get, just as long as it isn’t none.
We seek small-scale fame and social distinction of this kind because we want social acceptance and external validation.
There’s no getting away from it—being in great shape turns heads and gets people talking about you. Spend any time in a social setting, and compliments and questions will come your way.
People want to know how you eat, train, and stay so disciplined. They ask you for hints, tips, recipes, and if you’re free next week to give them some training.
It feels good to be the centre of everyone’s attention, but is it reason enough to get fit?
Aiming at social acceptance or status by spending hours in the gym so that you get attention for being in great shape is unlikely to satisfy you intrinsically.
Don’t get fit because you want to impress others. When you focus on being accepted by others, you miss what it’s like to be proud of, and thus accept, yourself.
One of the best things about results in the gym is they can’t be bought or gifted to you. They can only be achieved through hard work, discipline, and perseverance. Next time you finish a difficult set, savour the feeling of accomplishment—you can take great pride in the hardships you overcome in the gym, and they’ll become so addictive you’ll want to keep going back time and again.
Summary: Don’t get in shape to get attention, admiration, or approval from others. Do it to build your self confidence and pride for what you’ve accomplished—that’s all you need.
Got a ball-breaker of a boss?
Had an argument with your spouse?
Are financial troubles giving you sleepless nights?
Just go for a long run or a grueling gym sesh, fitness and self improvement magazines say.
Of course, there’s a kernel of truth to this claim—exercise has a profound effect on our mental well-being.
Like anything, though, you can take this idea too far.
Instead of using exercise to help smooth the inevitable ups and downs of life, many people use it as a way to escape from their problems.
“Nevermind the fact that my life’s a mess—at least I’ve got abs,” they tell themselves.
Exercise is arguably a more productive distraction than conspicuous consumption, video games, or Netflix binges, but some people still use it to dodge responsibility.
Whilst few would argue that taking a little time away from the pressures of real life every once in a while is a good thing, is escaping your problems by engaging in a hobby always the best solution?
Research suggests it all depends on why you want to escape.
For example, if you immerse yourself in regular exercise because you view it as an opportunity for self-development, and you can clearly see how it will positively affect your life, then you’re in luck—you won’t just experience positive psychological effects during your workouts, but post-workout, too.
On the other hand, if you engage in regular exercise to direct your attention away from things that are weighing heavy on your mind, then not only are you blocking the sources of anxiety from your consciousness, you’re also hindering any positive psychological effects exercise would normally grant you.
While you can’t bicep curl away life’s problems, this isn’t a reason to give up on exercise—instead, you simply have to ask yourself why you want to work out.
If it’s to avoid the torment of being alone with your thoughts, or to fill in the time you should be using to work through your problems, exercise isn’t going to help.
If however, you use it as a time to build the type of resilience and fortitude that will better equip you to handle life’s problems, you’re likely to get far more out of it.
The gym isn’t simply a place to exercise, but an opportunity to take the path of most resistance. It is, as David Goggins might say, a place to callus your mind in the same way you might callus your hands. It is a place to test our mettle, toughen up, and practice resilience in the face of hardship.
Exercise is also fantastically cathartic—time spent pushing yourself in the gym is the perfect opportunity to get rid of any angst or ill will you may be harboring, and work through the issues you’re trying to resolve with a clear mind. Often, the best ideas, and solutions will come to you when you’re knee deep in a tough workout.
If all around you is in chaos, having a routine—like a daily workout—can be a good thing, too. While everything else might be up in the air, you always know where you stand with a hard gym session.
Summary: Don’t workout to hide from your problems. Use your time in the gym to hone mental strength as well as physical, and exploit exercise’s ability to make you think more clearly—it will help you face your problems and resolve them.
While wanting to lose weight, feel sexier, or get more attention from potential partners might be perfectly good reasons to get in shape, they won’t motivate you forever.
Sooner or later, you’ll need a deeper drive.
Wading through the extrinsic motivations to find things that satisfy you intrinsically might not always be simple, but fulfilling motivations can be found in even the most extrinsic goals.
Before you focus all your attention on chasing something you think will make you happy, take a second to consider if it’s actually as good as it seems. If you find it isn’t, it might be time to rethink—regular exercise will help you in countless ways both physically and mentally, but only if you do it with the right kind of motivation.
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