Healthy Mind, Healthy Body: The Psychology of Fitness Motivation
Going to the gym is always a positive choice that makes us feel happier and healthier. Making this a consistent routine, however, isn’t so easy. Carving out time for the gym is complicated by work, kids and other responsibilities in daily life. Fortunately, learning how to motivate and inspire yourself can help you create a gym routine that sticks.
Understanding the core tenets of motivation are essential for creating healthy routines. Educational consultant Kendra Cherry says motivation is the force that drives goal-oriented behavior. It’s what inspires us to take a specific action to fulfill a need, whether that’s grabbing food while we’re hungry or hitting the gym to tone up.
“The forces that lie beneath motivation can be biological, social, emotional, or cognitive in nature,” she writes.
Historian Matthew A. McIntosh separates motivation into two key areas: drives and motives. Drives are biological: things like eating, sleeping and reproducing are all driven by innate forces. Motives are more social and psychological, and they involve family and career and social changes; all driven by the need for praise, approval and acceptance.
Additionally, pain and pleasure both play major roles in motivation. We’re influenced to avoid things that cause pain, and move towards things that give us pleasure, explains Matt Valentine at Goalcast. This is the foundation of motivation, and has major implications for how we live our lives.
From a negative standpoint, making choices for pleasure can impact our long-term health and wellbeing. Choosing unhealthy food instead of healthy food because it tastes better, or avoiding going to the gym because working out is uncomfortable, are examples of how this can play out.
For a more positive outlook, think instead of all the ways that exercising will bring you pleasure in the long run, even if it feels painful in the moment. Imagine the many benefits exercising will bring to your body. These positive rewards include the fact that exercise is a natural antidepressant, says therapist Thomas Winterman.
“By exercising, you are allowing oxygen to flow through your body and get to your brain, your brain releases the “feel-good” chemicals, your feelings become more positive, and your thoughts improve too,” he explains.
If you want to have motivation to exercise, simply getting up and moving can give you the inspiration you feel that you’ve been missing.
Creating Personal Motivations
We all have different reasons for wanting to hit the gym or pound the pavement. According to sports psychologist William Wiener, these reasons are essential for keeping us motivated when we feel like slacking at the gym (or avoiding it all together). He suggests thinking about the end of a workout. With endorphins and self-confidence ranging throughout your body, this is perhaps one of the greatest rewards of a hard workout.
“Most people who have worked out have at least had some moments where they felt incredibly good after a workout. Remembering that moment clearly and attaching to it can help you get your sneakers laced up and ready to go,” he says.
Similarly, recording how you feel after a workout can help get you up and moving. In a roundup of motivational tips from Marina Khidekel at Thrive Global, one woman suggests remembering how it feels to be fit and lean. If you’ve had a strong workout routine in the past but have lost it, recalling that time can inspire you now.
Associating your workout with happy memories might also help you get out the door, suggests Victoria Hoff at Byrdie. She points to research which shows that people who associate exercise with positive memories are more likely to stay consistent with their workouts. Choose exercise routines that you actually enjoy (rather than doing something you don’t like, just because you feel like you should). This will help you associate the exercise with positivity and self-love.
Another idea is to switch up your workout every so often. CrossFit coach Heidi Jones explains how she opts for different workouts to stay motivated. "Changing the way I work out keeps my body guessing. I get the opportunity to work different muscle groups versus targeting the same ones month after month, which keeps my body balanced and injury free."
Keeping your body guessing keeps your mind intrigued, so you feel more excited and engaged during a workout rather than feeling bored and unmotivated.
Writing your goals down can also help you motivate yourself in a positive way. Rather than letting your goals float around in your head, write them down and put them where you’ll see them often, suggests personal trainer Andia Winslow. “That helps remind you why you’re going to the gym, which is so, so key for staying motivated,” she says.
Setting Realistic and Achievable Goals
Creating a plan to go to the gym every day at five in the morning might not be realistic — unless you normally wake up at that hour feeling energized. Making a schedule you can stick to requires that you create achievable goals that fit into your lifestyle.
SMART goals are the foundation of any effective exercise routine, says Alexa Tucker at SHAPE.
“SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely—all of which are important in reaching a fitness objective. SMART goals can help keep you on track and remind you of your priorities, so you're able to follow through with every workout or healthy meal you have planned,” she explains.
Breaking it up can help make your goals smarter and your results more effective. As marketer Mike Fishbein puts it: long-term goals are best achieved when they’re separated into small ones. “One strategy is to break big goals into smaller goals that you can achieve on a consistent basis,” he says.
Setting weekly goals is a great way to achieve a lofty goal. When it comes to going to the gym, you might set a goal around running an additional mile, or increasing the weight you’d like to lift in weight training. By giving yourself opportunities for short-term wins, you’ll feel more inspired and motivated to continue towards your long-term goals.
Startup Nation’s Emily Friedel agrees with the importance of small goals, which she calls baby steps. She uses the example of a marathon to demonstrate how tiny steps can go a long way. If you decide to run a marathon, the end goal of 26 miles seems daunting (especially if you’re not a long-distance runner). Breaking this goal into smaller runs over a longer period of time makes it much more achievable.
Small goals are important for turning your gym routine into a habit, too. Going to the gym is just one healthy change that goes along with a number of additional, positive lifestyle habits. You can’t try to change all your habits at once, says fitness model and online trainer Jamie Eason Middleton. One week, for example, you commit to getting up one hour earlier to make time to work out. Maybe the next week, you commit to a harder workout.
Middleton says consistency is key, too. “Stick to your diet and exercise plan for at least 30 consecutive days. The more often behaviors are repeated, the more likely they will become ingrained and habitual.”