It’s that time of year again, the time when most of us resolve to exercise more. It’s also the time of year when we look for something to keep us motivated, so that the resolution doesn’t fall flat by March. In my experience, however, long-term motivation is created, not simply found. Research shows that long-term drive for a given behavior is the result of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards. For example, studies have shown that when someone engages in a behavior for a reward, that reward becomes less motivating over time. The person begins to expect the reward, and it is no longer as meaningful to them.
On the other hand, if we engage in a behavior because of how it makes us feel, then it is less likely that our drive will diminish over time. For example, one powerful intrinsic motivator is the increase in feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine that flood our system during and after an exercise session. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. The dopamine response to exercise can elevate our mood and produce a general sense of well-being. There is also a confidence and increase in self-esteem that is reported with regular exercise. All of this provides intrinsic motivation that is resistant to change over time. Other intrinsic motivators include the feelings of strength, competence, and independence that accompany exercise.
What if you currently lack motivation? How do you become motivated to exercise? The answer isn’t simple, nor is it the same for everybody. Still, evidence suggests that there are three elements that are consistent among quality and effective intrinsic motivation. The self-determination theory (SDT) states that individuals are more motivated to engage in long-term behavior when it involves a sense of autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. Autonomous behaviors are ones that you choose yourself, not behaviors you feel pressured into by a reward, guilt, or any other extrinsic motivator. For example, if you choose to take a walk because you enjoy the relaxing feeling you get, that is an autonomous reason for exercising. Conversely, if you decide to walk because your doctor has told you to, that motivation is unlikely to last. Relatedness is another important topic that SDT identifies. The theory suggests that you are more likely to remain motivated when you feel connected to others. When you meet the same group of people at MET-Fitness each day, you’re related to those individuals by your common goals and reasons for exercising. That feeling of community is linked to long-term success. Finally, a sense of mastery is important for you to continue engaging in a behavior. Feeling competent and overcoming the challenges of exercise can foster a desire to keep exercising. If you regularly feel defeated by your workouts, or fail to progress, you’re likely to lose motivation.
With all of this said, exercising for any reason is to be commended. There are a number of healthy motivators that are more extrinsic in nature. It is normal to become motivated by the encouragement of a loved one, or coach. It is also very motivating to see the number on the scale go down. Being complimented on how much healthier we look is also a strong motivator. Unfortunately, as we continue exercising, the encouragement can come less often, you may meet your goal weight, and folks stop telling you how good you look. At that point, it would be normal for your motivation wane. So, while external motivators may get you started exercising, it helps to be looking for your personal connection to fitness along the way. You can try to choose physical activities that you enjoy, one’s that challenge you in a way that you can progress, and in a setting where you feel connected to others with similar goals.