We are flooded with advice on how to get motivated for exercise. There are a wide variety of tricks to choose from: fitness devices, trainers, exercise partners, structured programs, competitions and challenges. They certainly work, for a while anyway. Then something happens. You get bored. The device breaks. Your exercise partner moves. You get injured. The trainer is not in the budget. The fitness challenge ends. The weather changes.
When your motivation slips away, you might start thinking it’s you. You just need to work harder. You need more accountability. You are just not determined enough, tough enough, focused enough, too lazy to do this on your own. You start believing you just can’t be trusted with your own exercise motivation. So you keep searching for something better out there to make you stay on track because after all, those tools and tricks for exercise motivation can’t be the problem, can they?
Consistently, studies show external motivators such as rewards, challenges and structured programs work for short-term motivation. They are great for getting you motivated. However, researchers have found the people who stay motivated and exercise through the ups and downs of life, no matter what, are the ones who are motivated for internal reasons. They say things like, “I just don’t feel the same if I don’t exercise,” “it makes me a better person,” “it is one of the best part of my day.”
You might say, yes, of course I want to feel and function better. But to get there, I need to see results to feel like I am making progress so I stay motivated. THIS is exactly where we come to the fork in the road with exercise motivation—when you are led to believe success is when you reach some external goal that can be measured with a number.
Let’s say you want to lose weight so you have more energy for doing things you enjoy with your family. You say “I will start exercising to help me lose weight.” In that simple statement, you have shifted your focus from your internal source of motivation—having more energy, to the external motivator—the scale. You have outsourced your motivation. Seeing the scale go down will be motivating, but what about when it does not? Your motivation has now taken a nose dive. Even when you are feeling more energy, and starting to do more activities you enjoy again, you are so focused on that scale telling you how you are doing, you are likely to conclude “this exercise program isn’t working!”
The cure for this very common drain in exercise motivation is to stay focused on the internal reasons you are exercising. This is not an easy cure. We love our numbers. They make us feel better. They are so validating. But when they distract from your ultimate, most energizing, internal goal, they drain motivation in the end. Remember that the scale, steps, miles, calories are tools, not your ultimate goal. Focus on how exercise makes you feel each time, how it allows you to do more things you enjoy. You are much more likely to get the ultimate results you want, with the bonus of having a more lasting source of motivation.