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Finding the Motivation for Exercise and Fitness Within

Jan 09, 2012

Written by Christina Geithner, Ph.D., FACSM, ACSM HFS

Having the motivation or intention to be fit is one thing; acting on the motivation is another. It takes intention (motivation) plus action to equal results. The more motivated you are, the easier it is to take action (exercise) to realize your fitness goals. Motivation is a cognitive process that connects a thought or a feeling with an action. Motivation may be intrinsic (an internal drive to do something out of interest or enjoyment in exercise itself, or valuing exercise as important or beneficial) or extrinsic (an external drive, such as rewards, competition or the threat of punishment).

Get to Know the Motivators for Exercise and Fitness
Public health researchers are particularly interested in psychological influences on exercise behavior (including intrinsic and extrinsic motivators) because they may be modifiable. One intrinsic motivator is knowledge. Understanding the benefits of exercise—including reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, colon cancer and all-cause mortality as well as increased energy, improved fitness and better quality of life—can be a motivator. Intrinsic motivators can also include reduced depression and anxiety levels, enhanced mood, improved confidence and self-esteem, and heighted need to enjoy activity in retirement. Extrinsic motivators for exercise include weight loss, improved physical appearance and competition for awards. A recommendation from your health care provider, something ACSM advocates through the Exercise is Medicine® initiative, can serve as a strong external motivator for exercise. The key is to determine what are important or salient motivators for you.

How to Build and Maintain Motivation
Common recommendations for building and maintaining exercise motivation include the following:

  • Set a goal or vision. Having a clear picture of your desired outcome (your destination) makes you much more likely to achieve it. Clearly specify how you will know when you’ve reached your goal. You might take a picture of yourself now and every four weeks, so you can see how you’re progressing.
  • Strategize.
    —Develop a realistic action plan. Create a clear, logical and achievable action plan that includes frequency, intensity and duration of cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching. Include realistic short- and long-term goals. Start small and progress gradually to help you feel successful and avoid injury or burnout.
    —Use environmental cues. Put your gym bag by the door, so you remember to take it to work. Or schedule your workouts into your calendar or planner and set electronic reminders on your cellphone or computer.
    —Have fun. Find an activity that you enjoy and will stick with, along with an environment that is supportive, safe and comfortable for you.
    —Make it convenient. Exercise at home to fitness DVDs if you don’t have time to drive to the gym. Exercise at the time of day when you have time and you enjoy doing it.
    —Record your progress. Keep a written record of your exercise (weights, sets, reps; distance walked, run, or biked; flights of stairs climbed; etc.) to provide information about progress that reinforces your exercise behavior.
    —Build a social support network. Find a buddy with whom you can work out regularly. You can help and encourage each other, rely on each other for moral support and accountability, and share in your accomplishments. If you need additional help and accountability, you can hire a personal trainer. Look for a trainer who is credentialed by a well-known organization, such as ACSM.
    —Reward yourself. Treat yourself to something that is compatible with your health and fitness goals (e.g., not a piece of chocolate cake, but something else you enjoy, like a movie, flowers or new exercise clothing).
  • Believe in yourself. You can implement a strategy and achieve your vision. Self-efficacy, or confidence in your ability to succeed, can be built by self-affirmations or positive self-talk and by small fitness gains. Don’t expect perfection or compare yourself to others. Keep your focus on what makes exercise meaningful for you and what you ultimately want to gain from your exercise program.
  • Persist. Making good exercise and nutrition choices day after day can be challenging. If you have momentary setbacks, accept them and get back on track.

Your exercise goals depend on your ability to understand your exercise personality and motivators. Having a clear goal or vision that excites you and pursuing it in an enjoyable way is a great start. It’s all about knowing what makes you tick and pairing intention with action to achieve tremendous fitness results.

View the full summer 2011 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page supported by Liberty Mutual online.

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