Exercise is imperative for healthy living, yet many people still find it hard to stick to a regular exercise program. This can be particularly challenging for people who have been sedentary for most of their lives. When I ask people about their obstacles to exercising, I'm often met with a variety of excuses: it's too hot, it's too cold, it's raining, it's snowing, I don't have time, I'm tired, my feet hurt, my back hurts, I can't afford the gym.
Although the list of excuses is infinite, the underlying issue is usually motivation.
Let's set aside the excuses and instead explore the nature of motivation and how we can discover the ability to sustain our momentum. The key to remaining motivated is to find value in the experience itself rather than focusing exclusively on the outcome.
Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation
There are two different types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivators are values received from the outside environment. For exercise, these are rewards such as how we look, wanting praise from others, weight loss. These are not unimportant reasons, but they are unlikely to keep you motivated unless there is also some intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is the meaning we find and the internal rewards that we experience as the result of any endeavor. When you watch a runner pounding the pavement on a rainy afternoon, chances are that person has found some internal satisfaction from running itself — meaning the runner may not only be trying to look good, but also finds some deep, personal fulfillment that enhances the quality of their life.
You will need to find some reason beyond losing weight or getting your blood pressure down to help keep you motivated on a daily basis.
Intrinsic rewards that can be garnered through exercise include: emotional resilience, lower stress levels, a sense of well-being, spiritual fulfillment, confidence, higher purpose and emotional growth. For people who exercise in groups, a sense of community is also an intrinsic motivator.
People who stick to exercise programs in the long term all have some intrinsic motivation. If your doctor advises that you need to add exercise into your daily life, you will need to find some reason beyond losing weight or getting your blood pressure down to help keep you motivated on a daily basis. People who are not intrinsically motivated often describe incongruence: what they should be doing contradicts with what they want to do. That is, they know they should exercise, and yet emotionally they don't want to.
How to develop intrinsic motivation
The first step toward remaining committed to an exercise program is building intrinsic motivation. This will take time and patience, especially if you have been sedentary for most of your life. Exercising regularly takes discipline, but the rewards are immeasurable.
Here are five suggestions.
1. Find something you enjoy
Before embarking upon a new exercise program, it is helpful to think about your personality and consider which activity might appeal to you most. For example, some people enjoy group exercise classes, group runs or walks, whereas some people prefer the solitude of solo training. Some people enjoy the zone of repetitive motion exercises such as swimming and running, walking or cycling. Others prefer the variety of a dance or Pilates class, even water aerobics. You are much more likely to feel that you want to exercise when you've chosen an activity that you like.
2. Set incremental goals
One obstacle to building intrinsic motivation is setting goals that are too ambitious and lead to failure. This will zap even the most well-intentioned person's motivation.
For example, if you want swim for 30 minutes without stopping, you will need to build up to this. The long-term goal is to swim for 30 minutes. Set smaller, incremental goals that will lead to the long-term goal: I will swim three days this week; I will swim one lap without stopping and take a 30 second break between laps. Next week, I will swim two laps without stopping. No matter your age or previous athletic ability, following an incremental program will build stamina and strength.
As you get stronger, the feeling of endurance and strength will help develop intrinsic motivation. You are more likely to find fulfillment in the activity if you feel good about what you're doing. Setting realistic goals will prevent you from sabotaging your progress.
Rather than seeing it as something you have to do or should do, come to see it as an opportunity to find greater life satisfaction.
3. Find your routine
If possible, planning workouts around the same time every day can be helpful. For example, some people are more able to stick to workout programs if they go first thing in the morning. Others find it easier at night, some during lunch. There is no right time; only the right time for you. The important part is to make exercise part of your daily routine.
Think about it: you probably brush your teeth and/or drink your coffee around the same time every day; exercise needs to become as reflexive as these daily rituals.
4. Be accountable
Many people find hiring a personal trainer or joining a group helps them stay motivated, because they are now accountable to others. Signing up for an event such as a 5K run or walk, or a spinning or dancing fundraiser can give your training meaning, as the event gives you something to work toward. In both instances, the shared focus on wellness found within groups builds camaraderie.
5. Change your perception
Perception and attitude have a vast impact on motivation. If you dread going to the gym, chances are your experience at the gym will be dreadful. Change the way you look at exercise. Rather than seeing it as something you have to do or should do, come to see it as an opportunity to find greater life satisfaction. If you can stick with a program long enough to build some physical endurance, you will discover many internal rewards: relaxation, a sense of well-being, a better outlook, reduced stress, emotional resilience, confidence, purpose.
Be patient. Be committed. Be positive. The more you shift your perspective, the more motivated you will be. This is a promise.
Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.
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