The motivation to move doesn’t always come easily. In fact, a lack of get-up-and-go can become the most daunting fitness obstacle many will face. Low motivation can be devastating to those contemplating or just beginning an exercise program, but it can also impede the progress of even seasoned fitness veterans.
Because our brains often prove tougher to train than our bodies, and when our brains aren’t entirely on board with our exercise plans, our bodies tend to take the path of least resistance. Even elite athletes like Mark Allen – a six-time Ironman triathlon world champion who now coaches triathletes – struggle with motivational lulls. “I’m actually a lazy person,” he says. “If I’m training alone, I’ll often stall until it’s too late and then blow off the workout.”
Motivational challenges like these strike most of us at one time or another, according to John F. Eliot, PhD, professor of performance psychology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and author of Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. And while motivational slumps can be caused by several factors, there’s one that stands out: our tendency to put too much emphasis on extrinsic motivators.
Extrinsic motivators are rooted in standards, concerns and rewards that exist outside of us – things like a goal weight on the scale, an image in the mirror or our concern about what other people think. Intrinsic motivators, by contrast, are rooted in internal standards and satisfactions – our desire to do our best, and our pleasure in expressing our true values and pursuing our authentic interests.
Perhaps your focus during every workout is achieving a flatter stomach. While that extrinsic motivation might get you to the gym initially, it’s unlikely to be satisfying enough to keep you going back over the long term, Eliot says. Instead, he suggests, look within yourself to develop intrinsic, values-based goals that will truly excite you. For example, you may have more success focusing weight-loss goals around an authentic desire to enjoy a more active lifestyle, to develop your fitness skills or to make your personal health a priority. (For help with this, check out “Active Planning“.)
Get Up and Go
Revisiting and reconnecting with your intrinsic motivations can help you maintain momentum from workout to workout. But what about when it comes to getting through a particular workout? No problem. We’ve assembled a four-phase strategy to get you over any humps you might encounter.
Phase 1: Getting There
Simply showing up for exercise can prove the biggest hurdle of all, which is why Eliot suggests finding an exercise time you can protect. “Whether it’s in the morning or after the kids go to bed, pick a consistent time and don’t let anything interfere,” he says, adding that it takes only two to three weeks to create an exercise habit.
You might also make a commitment to somebody who will hold you accountable, says Debbie Rocker, motivational coach and author of Training for Life. Ask a friend to meet you every morning, join a walking or cycling club, or get involved with a group weight-loss or training program that supports your goals.
If you still don’t feel like exercising on a given day, make a compromise: You’ll take a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood, run a couple flights of stairs, or go to the gym and hit the sauna. Just the act of keeping this small commitment to yourself is important, and it may inspire you to do more once you get started (see below).
Whatever you do, silence any negative self-talk that has you dragging. If you hear negative voices (“You look fat in your workout clothes” or “This is a waste of time”), ask yourself: “Who is in charge here?”
If the self-doubting, self-criticizing part of you seems to be running the show, ask your most self-respecting and supportive personality to step forward and take over: Now, what would that voice say?
Phase 2: Getting Started
The first 15 minutes of exercise are usually the make-or-break period, since they’ll set the mood for the entire workout. Build enthusiasm during those first few minutes, and you’ll be more likely to stay invested for the duration.
Before you even begin to move, take some deep breaths and center your attention. Reconnect with the core values that made you choose to exercise in the first place (health, family or commitment to self, for instance). Turn on some uplifting music. Take a moment to appreciate your body’s ability to move and feel. This type of positive, purpose-centered, gratitude-grounded attitude can go a long way toward getting both your body and mind stoked for activity.
Start your workout with eight to 10 minutes of light-to-medium-intensity exercise, and enjoy the feeling of your body warming, your breath becoming rhythmic. Not only are you getting your heart rate up and increasing your production of joint-lubricating synovial fluid, you’re also creating an early sense of success, which will pump you up to keep exercising, Eliot says. In fact, even if you commit to doing only the first 10 minutes of your planned workout, chances are you’ll feel so good you’ll want to continue.
Phase 3: Getting Through
Rather than focusing on getting to the end of your workout, set some mini-goals and measure your interim progress. You can use variables like time, distance, pace, heart rate or even mental cues (“just three more songs/ laps/sun salutations to go”) to move yourself along.
You can also focus on your present-moment experience. What are the sensations in the various parts of your body? Can you experience and describe them without judgment or reaction? What happens when you switch your focus from your feet to your core, from your breathing to the feeling of air on your skin? Move your attention around and see what happens (for suggestions, see “Lean Into It“).
Watch your intensity, Allen advises. Don’t go so hard that you quit 15 minutes earlier than you’d planned or you risk getting discouraged. Track your progress in a journal. “Getting through your workouts often hinges on feeling like you’re improving,” Eliot says.
Phase 4: Finishing Strong
It’s easy to lose focus toward the end of a workout: That’s why Rocker suggests picturing a finish line and ending your workout with a break-the-tape mentality, arms raised high. A personal mantra (“Almost there!” or “I can do this!”) might help.
Resist any temptation to bail on your cool-down. Use this time to recognize and take pleasure in a job well done. Consider introducing a ritual to signal the close of your workout – something you can do while stretching, like playing a victory theme song on your iPod.
“If nothing else, give yourself a couple minutes to honor your accomplishment,” Eliot says. The next time your motivations falter, evoke this moment of self-gratitude and pride. Then keep on coming back for more.
When “Just Do It” Isn’t Doing the Trick
If you’re feeling uninspired by the prospect of your daily workout, exploring your options may be a far-better alternative than abandoning ship. Keep a portable list of pro-exercise values and motivations, and refer to it whenever you’re not sure you have enough oomph to exercise. From there, ask yourself these questions to help you decide what today will hold:
1. How do you feel right now? Would you be up to a shorter workout, or for taking it easy? Could you do just 10 minutes of activity – or even a walk around the block?
2. What environment appeals to you? The gym? A lake, a park or a tree-lined neighborhood? A yoga studio? Do you feel like exercising alone or with people? If doing cardio doesn’t appeal to you, what about resistance training, Pilates, yoga, balance work, dancing or stretching?
3. Is there anything that might make the prospect of exercise more appealing? Would putting on your workout clothes or listening to upbeat music jump-start your mood? Might working out with your dog or best friend get you going? How about walking or biking to a beautiful destination?
4. If you’re not up to exercising, what healthy alternative activity (prepping veggies, visiting a farmers’ market, making a fitness-vision collage, journaling) will you do instead?
This article originally appeared as “Ready, Set, Go!” in the November 2006 issue of Experience Life.