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Blog post

Let’s skip the whining

and get real on your motivation to be active
May 30, 2017
By Erin O’Loughlin


“I want to be more active.” “I want to lose weight.” “I want to be healthier.” Does this sound like you?

“I’m too tired to exercise.” “Exercise costs too much.” “I’m lazy.” “I hate exercise.” “I’m too busy.” “ I can only workout at X time or under X conditions.” “I’m not motivated.” Does this also sound like you?

Plenty of us have used these excuses (yes, I will call them excuses and not reasons) many many times. As an exercise motivation specialist, fitness business owner and group instructor, I have also heard them many, many times.  Motivation is a tricky thing—it’s not unlimited and it lies on a continuum competing with other interests. Motivation shouldn’t be the only thing you are relying on when trying to get more active.  

Ideally you want whatever is currently motivating you to be more active (losing weight for example) to enable you to develop or acquire healthier habits. Then, when motivation is low, you will still maintain your new healthy habit (like working out) because it’s just what you do and who you are now. Motivation works best when combined with habit formation and a shift in perspective. More on this later…

Move on from your past

But for the sake of getting active in the now, let’s forget about the past. Let’s move on from our past “happy weight,” our past diet plans, our past workout plans, our past excuses—let’s just move on. None of those things matter anymore. What is important is the now and the future. The past no longer helps us (unless you have medical conditions of course).

The goal of this blog entry is to help you think about becoming more active.

I will start with what science says, then describe what my experiences have shown me and finally end with some “real talk” that you will want to read if nothing (I mean nothing else) helps you to be more active.

Most of us need to increase our efforts to stay active because only 15 percent of adults are exercising enough to obtain health benefits (150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week, for example five 30-minute walks a week).

The science behind exercise motivation

There are many theories we can discuss to help motivate you to get more active. I will discuss a few here:

1. Goal theory. This is how you view your goals. They can be either task- (success depends on the mastery of the skill) or ego-oriented (success depends on winning or out-performing others). Broadly speaking, viewing your goals as tasks to master (rather than winning) will help you with motivation. So instead of competing in a weight loss challenge, for example, find an activity that you would like to be able to improve upon in a measurable way, such as weight training to increase strength.

2. Ability beliefs. People who believe that intelligence is fixed rather than changeable tend to be less motivated towards physical activity. If you don’t believe you can learn a new skill, you won’t be able to improve and set new goals for yourself. The take-home message from this theory is to be open, try new things, and believe that you can improve and increase your abilities.

3. Self-determination theory. Probably the most used motivation theory for physical activity. Overall, this approach states that motivation is located on a continuum that ranges from not being motivated at all, to being motivated by extrinsic (lose weight, pressure from friends) or intrinsic reasons (being active for enjoyment, it’s part of who you are). Ideally you want your motivation to be intrinsic (internal) because when outside factors disappear, so does your motivation.

Motivation is also fluid, so it’s ok to want to lose weight initially, but you will need to eventually reframe your motivation so it becomes internal. As time goes by, choosing activities that you feel competent doing and help you relate to others will encourage you to internalize that motivation (and make it a habit you enjoy).

4. Competence. You need to feel competent to be motivated to participate in an activity. This can take time and effort, however, so give yourself a few weeks to get used to those Zumba or barre moves before you decide whether or not it’s the right activity for you.

5. Physical self-worth. People who love themselves and have positive self-perceptions are more active in general. Even if you have some awesome goals and aren’t there yet, love yourself and embrace the journey so your motivation stays high.

Advice from an experienced fitness instructor

I have discovered that people who come to my group classes consistently share certain traits:

1. Loving the activity. Those who really love the class will keep coming back time and time again. Lesson to be learned: do something you love, regardless of its “immediate results.” Sure you may burn more calories by attending a boot camp or CrossFit class for three months, but if you hate it, you will stop going and all the short-term benefits will disappear (quickly I might add). Love what you do and you will reap the long-term results.

2. Never miss a class/session. It is scheduled in, it is a priority, it is non-negotiable and nothing is stopping you from going (even that nagging inner voice telling you to skip it). People who stick to their sessions plan their brunches, social gatherings, and the kids’ stuff around their gym/fitness time. Sometimes life gets in the way, but they are back the next week without fail! Those who miss more than two weeks never come back. Even if they love the class, it’s too late. Commit.

3. Social support. It sounds cliché but people who come to my classes with a friend are always the ones who attend the most consistently. Your friends keep it fun and hold you accountable. Being social and active is a winning combo. Brunch and barre is the best Sunday.

Finally, some real talk

If none of this has helped and you are not already planning your workout routine or how you can get active with the help of science and my experiences, then I will tell you this: if being healthy, reducing the risk of disease and looking better doesn’t motivate you, I don’t think anything anyone tells you will help.

I suggest just accepting that you do not want to be active. I also suggest, however, that you recognize that your actions may lead to negative health consequences.

I recommend that you accept your body for the way it is. Stop complaining, try to be happy and enjoy what you do have. Stop complaining, really. Stop complaining that you don’t have time, that you are tired or that you don’t have enough money. Everyone has 10 minutes, exercise actually gives you energy and there are tons of free YouTube workout videos (walking and running outside in the fresh air is also free!).

Just accept that you are not motivated and that this is who you are right now. Does that make you upset? Has it got you thinking? Are you uncomfortable with this idea? Want to prove me wrong? Maybe you do have some motivation, then. Use it and revisit the scientific theories and motivational tips I have offered. Find something that resonates with you. Develop a plan, start now, make it a habit and stay motivated.

About the author


Erin O’Loughlin is a certified personal trainer, pre-post natal and Barre fitness instructor. She is also a research coordinator at the CRCHUM working on the project AdoQuest, whose main objective is to determine the extent of co-occurrence of modifiable lifestyle behaviors among youth along the life course. 


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