Not looking forward to working out? Having trouble motivating yourself to exercise even though you know it would be beneficial to your body and mind? Unsure how to keep that exercise motivation going beyond that initial spark?
Motivation can feel like an elusive creature — a mythical unicorn. Sometimes it’s easy to jump out of bed and tackle that early morning work out with enthusiasm, while other times we feel like we’re slogging through quicksand with every step. And let’s face it, when we’re feeling the latter, the struggle to build a consistent workout routine is so so so real.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. With the right knowledge and mindset, you can learn how to motivate yourself to work out – no matter how unmotivated you feel. In this blog post, we’ll explore the science behind finding the exercise motivation you need to get going and provide tips on how to stay motivated when that initial motivation inevitably wanes. Let’s dive in!
What is motivation?
We all know the feeling of having the best intentions of getting a workout in, but there’s always something else, like that new Netflix show or a stray cat video or a nice, cozy bed that’s sucking us back in, that can knock us off of track and keep us from moving toward our goals.
The motivation was there when we set the intention and made the plan … but where did it go when the time came to actually do the things we intended and planned to do???
Motivation is considered the holy grail of self-improvement. It’s the spark that lights the fire under our asses and gets us moving toward our goals. Whether it’s the promise of a free donut on Fridays or the dream of landing your dream job, motivation is what drives us to take action and make things happen. And yet, motivation can be a slippery little bugger, like trying to catch a greased pig.
Sometimes we feel motivated for seemingly no apparent reason at all, while other times we can’t seem to muster the energy or the will to get off the couch. So, what is motivation, really?
People in the health + fitness space like to say that “motivation is a feeling” — but the research suggests that motivation is actually a process.
The word “motivation” is derived from the Latin “movere”, which means “to move”. Motivation refers to psychological forces that move us or bring us into action and the mental process that initiates, guides, and maintains our goal-oriented behavior. It is a term for the covert psychological processes that explain particular behavior characteristics (Lens & Vansteenkiste, 2020).
In other words, motivation is a process that happens – often under the radar – in our brains that helps us do the things necessary to achieve our goals. It’s why we do certain things and avoid others.
Self-motivation refers specifically to the process of giving yourself a motive to do something or sparking your own interest or enthusiasm for doing something.
Good news: You’re more motivated than you think
Everything we do and don’t do is because of motivation to meet some need inside us. You’re never NOT motivated. Even when you feel unmotivated to do Task A, something else is motivating you to do Task B instead to meet some specific need you have.
For example, when it’s time to go work out and you just want to sit on your couch surfing Netflix and scrolling social media, you might feel like you’re not motivated to exercise. But what’s actually happening is that you are MORE motivated to sit-surf-scroll than you are to get up and get moving.
In this scenario, both actions – staying on the couch and exercise – have a very good reason (or need) behind them. However, those motivations are competing with each other. On one hand, we all have a psychological need for calm, comfort, and safety — and often couch surfing/scrolling meets those needs (at least in the short term). On the other hand, if your goal is to get healthy and fit, you’re also motivated to exercise.
The issue is that your brain will default to one of those motivations – usually the one that is more familiar and frequent for you, which is a big part of why changing your behavior can be so difficult. So, if you’ve been surfing and scrolling for years to help your brain feel calm, comfortable, and safe, then your motivation to do that is likely going to be stronger than and ultimately override your motivation to get up and exercise.
But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Because once you’re aware that this is how your brain works, you can actually choose which motivation you’d like to act on. That’s right, you 100% CAN motivate yourself to work out in those moments when your brain is telling you to stay put, watch just one more episode, and keep scrolling.
Time to change your mindset around motivation
Now that you know it’s not a lack of motivation that’s driving the bus, but rather a competing motivation that’s guiding your behavior elsewhere, you can start to shift things in a different direction.
So, instead of asking yourself ” why do I feel so unmotivated?”, ask yourself these two questions:
- What is currently motivating my actions?
- How can I motivate myself to take a different, more desirable action?
As humans, we have many biological needs (like needing to go to the bathroom, eat, and sleep), many psychological needs (like safety, calm, autonomy, competence, and connection), and many emotions (like feeling anxious, sad, bored, angry, or stressed) that motivate us to do certain things instead of others.
So, rather than always hoping for more motivation as if it’s a feeling we can conjure inside ourselves, we actually need to do a better job of regulating the motivation we already have and choosing which motivations we’re acting on.
For example, when your alarm clock goes off on a chilly Monday morning signaling you to get up for an early workout before work, you might hit snooze and lay there while your brain generates thoughts like:
- I can’t get up right now.
- I’m too tired to workout.
- If I get up and workout, I’ll just be exhausted all day.
- The bed is so warm and cozy.
If you let that “cost analysis” that runs on autopilot motivate you, you’ll skip your workout 10 times out of 10. But if you tap into the benefits and recognize the value of getting out of bed and doing your workout, you’ll likely reduce the “cost” and be more likely to get up to get those benefits. It’s simply a matter of recognizing that you are motivated by more than just comfort and cozy spaces and choosing to act on those other things.
Your brain’s main job is to keep you safe and comfortable right now. It will not default to think about how sacrificing short-term discomfort might lead to long-term gain — you have to consciously make that switch and that’s a skill that take practice.
Getting yourself to work out can feel frustrating and seemingly impossible. But the truth is that humans are constantly motivated by our needs, emotions, and values. It’s just a matter of learning how to tap into the motivations you really want to act on so you can pump yourself up enough to exercise when scrolling or sleeping in feels more desirable at the moment.
Next time you’re feeling like skipping the gym, remember that motivation doesn’t have to come from some outside force – you can activate it right inside you. Want more ways to boost your workout motivation when you’d rather watch TV? Check out our Workout Motivation Mini-Course where we share more about the science of motivation as well as specific tips and ideas for staying active – so don’t miss out!
No matter how you choose to approach getting motivated for a workout, one thing’s for sure: keep up good work and your body will thank you for taking the reins and making intentional choices about how to live an active lifestyle that supports you!
Lens, W., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2020). Motivation: About the “why” and “what for” of human behavior. In Psychological Concepts (pp. 249-270). Psychology Press.