Struggling to find the motivation to work out is a common experience — even for seasoned athletes. While many assume feeling motivated is necessary to get started with and maintain a fitness routine, the truth is, most people who exercise regularly don’t feel motivated to work out every single day. The misconception that we need to feel motivated to work out is part of what leads people to give up on their routines before they’ve even gotten started.
“It’s absolutely normal to not feel motivated all the time,” says Kathryn Alexander, a clinical exercise physiologist. Just as we feel happy some days and sad others, it’s normal to feel motivated some days and apathetic others, she adds.
If you struggle with motivation, here’s some good news: You don’t need to feel motivated every time you work out. In fact, you might be more successful if you challenge your notions about what motivation really is and how much of it you truly need, experts say.
MOTIVATION ISN’T ALWAYS WHAT WE IMAGINE IT TO BE
Motivation doesn’t need to mean springing out of bed at 6 a.m. with a burning desire to go for a 5-mile run, points out Chloe Greenbaum, PhD, a clinical psychologist. In fact, most people never experience this type of motivation when it comes to working out — despite what we see on social media.
“It’s very easy to look at people on social media who are successful, energetic and happy, and think they just wake up motivated and passionate,” Alexander says. “The reality is, we don’t know them, and we don’t see their life behind the scenes.”
WE SOMETIMES FOCUS ON THE WRONG TYPE OF MOTIVATION
While we may not need the “hop-out-of-bed-at-6-am” type of motivation to succeed, we do need to stoke one specific type of motivation to be consistent with a workout routine for the long haul. Researchers call this intrinsic motivation, and we strengthen it when we enjoy and feel satisfied by the activities we’re doing.
“The internal drive is critical for keeping us going in the long run, because external rewards of fitness are fleeting,” explains Alan Chu, PhD, director of the Motivation and Performance Research Lab and chair of the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology master’s program at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. “We can’t lose weight, gain muscle, run faster or get stronger forever, even though those are good goals to set.” Eventually, you’ll have to work out just a reason other than changing your appearance or boosting your performance.
People sometimes expect fitness motivation means they’ll always be having fun, but that’s not necessarily the case. “For example, athletes do not always have fun at practices, but indeed may feel exhausted or overwhelmed at times,” Chu says. “The best of the best are always able to internalize the importance and the value of pushing themselves to the limit and eventually get the enjoyment from improving themselves and winning.”
ACTION OFTEN PRECEDES FEELINGS OF MOTIVATION
We typically think of motivation as the driving force behind taking action, like exercising. But this relationship is actually a two-way street. In some situations, taking action (for example, working out) may be the very thing that spurs and strengthens motivation, helping us continue with that action over time.
“If an action, such as exercise, leads to positive outcomes, such as increased energy or strength, those positive outcomes reinforce the action and make further action more likely,” Greenbaum notes.
The reason this works, according to Chu, is based on something called self-determination theory, which proposes we all have three main psychological needs to satisfy to feel motivated: autonomy (a sense of control), competence (a sense of effectiveness) and relatedness (a sense of connection).
“When motivation is lacking, and the person can still take action, that usually helps generate more motivation because that person should gain some autonomy and competence by taking action,” he says. The caveat, though, is that the action needs to be taken because we truly want to achieve something for ourselves rather than because we’re feeling external pressure, such as being told by a significant other to lose weight.
WAYS TO CULTIVATE LONG-TERM WORKOUT MOTIVATION
“Motivation is like a muscle; we need to work on it to get stronger,” Chu says. “We need to be intentional about adding autonomy, competence and relatedness to our daily routine to maintain our fitness and healthy lifestyle.” Here’s how to do just that.
- Competence: Redefine success. “Success is not achieved only when you reach the finish line,” Alexander says. You also want to set and celebrate smaller goals along the way. “If you make a plan to exercise three days a week, and you execute on it, you have done several things that should make you feel successful and motivated. You were successful in choosing what kind of exercise to do, finding a place to do it, going to the gym or walking/running three times.”
- Autonomy: Make working out a choice. Come up with several different workout options. Then, make a conscious choice about which one you’re going to do today, and why, Chu recommends. This decision-making process helps you cultivate autonomy. And the “why” part is important — perhaps you remind yourself of your deeper reason for working out or tell yourself you’re working out because you “get to” rather than because you “have to.”
“Practicing mindfulness and meditation also helps us be more aware of the fact that we can make a conscious choice to exercise (maybe with less intensity or time), even if we don’t feel like it,” Chu notes.
- Competence: Choose the right workout level. “Find an exercise routine that is at an optimal level of challenge,” Chu suggests. “Exercises that are too difficult make us feel bad and quit.” And on days when you don’t feel like exercising, lower the workout difficulty or set a goal just to start your workout.
- Relatedness: Find workout buddies. Working out with friends and family can make workouts more enjoyable, so we are more likely to stick to our routine, Chu says. “If working out with others is not possible, just doing check-ins every day or week about your exercise routine would help encourage one another to exercise regularly.”
- Competence and Relatedness: Keep track. Chu recommends keeping a habit tracker or a journal to plan and reflect on how you have (or haven’t) kept up with your habits. If you keep track of your habits via an online community like MyFitnessPal, you might also get some social support and accountability at the same time.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Remember what you’re feeling is normal. “Some days you’ll be more motivated than others. Some days will feel better than others. This is all normal!” Alexander emphasizes. “You are not a robot who has the same feelings and does the same actions consistently every single day.”
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.