The Problem with Motivation
It’s the end of September already. Where on earth did summer go? And when did it suddenly get so dark in the mornings and evenings?!
Despite your best intentions to jump out of bed at the sound of your 6am alarm and squeeze in a pre-work gym session, your body has other plans. So you snooze your alarm for the third day in a row, and tell yourself you’ll head to the gym after work instead. But it’s a long and stressful day of back to back meetings in the office, and by 5pm your poor brain is frazzled. Then your work mate suggests hump day happy hour at the pub. Now that’s an offer you can hardly refuse, after the day you’ve had. After all, you can always get up early and hit the gym tomorrow. And so the pattern repeats itself… and before you know it the week is over and you’ve not done any exercise.
Sound familiar? Well you’re not alone. 34% of men and 42% of women in the UK are not meeting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, plus two sessions of muscle strengthening exercise per week (Public Health England, 2020). You know that exercise is good for you, and you want to do more of it. But you just don’t seem to be able to. You tell yourself that you lack motivation, and if only you were more motivated to exercise you would be in the gym every day.
But here’s the thing, your problem is not actually a lack of motivation. You already have motivation, because you want to exercise. Your problem is following through with your intention to do the exercise. You need to bridge the gap between wanting to do the exercise and actually doing it. And counting on motivation to do this is a bad idea. Why? Because motivation is unreliable. You might feel motivated to get up and go for a run when it’s a gorgeous sunny day outside, but what happens when it’s dark and wet? Does that mean your exercise just won’t happen? If you’re relying on motivation alone, probably.
So what’s the solution, if it’s not motivation? How can you exercise consistently all year round? The key is to build habits. Habits are preferable to motivation because once they are established they require far less effort to perform, as they are automatic behaviours, in the same way that waking up and making a coffee might be for you. So far so good right? So what’s the catch, and why are so many of us still waiting for motivation to get started? Well, habits can take a notoriously long time to build; research suggests they can take anywhere between 18 and 254 days to establish, with an average of 66 days (Lally et al., 2010). That’s over two months, which is likely going to feel like an awfully long time to carry out a behaviour that doesn’t come naturally to you. However, there are some tried and tested ways to make habits far easier to build, which I’m going to discuss below. And if you stick at it, you’ll be rewarded with all the wonderful benefits that the habit of regular exercise brings, such as improved mood, energy, sleep and reduced risk of many diseases.
How to make exercise a habit:
1) Make a detailed plan
My first piece of advice is to plan the behaviour that you want to perform in as much detail as possible. If you want to build the habit of doing more exercise, it’s no good saying ‘I’ll go to the gym’, you need to get really specific. Change that to ‘On Monday at 6:30am I will go the The Gym Southfields and do a full-body workout’. You need to state exactly what you’re going to do, as well as where and when you’re going to do it.
This idea is grounded in the science of behaviour change – research by Milne et al. (2002) randomly allocated 248 participants into one of three groups; a control group, who had to track how often they exercised, a motivation group, who were presented with information about the health benefits of exercise, and a planning group, who received the same information as the motivation group but also had to specify exactly where and when they would exercise that week in the following format: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE]”. The researchers found that participants in the planning group exercised significantly more than participants in the other two groups, with 91% of them exercising at least once per week, compared with just 35% and 38% of participants in the other two groups. This study really highlights the importance of making detailed plans about our behaviours if we want to get things done, and emphasises that motivation alone is not sufficient for behaviour change.
I’d also suggest if possible to schedule your workouts for the same time each day, so that you associate that time with exercising. Research shows that people who exercise at the same time every day do more exercise than those who exercise sporadically (Schumacher et al., 2019). There’s also evidence that people who exercise first thing are more likely to stick at it than those who leave it until later in the day (Brooker et al., 2019), probably because other responsibilities get in the way or you’ve had time to talk yourself out of doing it.
I would recommend that you plan and write down all of your exercise sessions for the next week in your diary just like you would for any other commitment. This will help to reinforce the idea in your mind that you will be exercising at X time on X day, and will give exercise the same level of importance as other events in your life.
2) Exercise in ways you enjoy!
There’s literally no point in doing exercise that you hate, because you’re going to resent it and thus you’re unlikely to stick with it for very long. It really doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do, the most important thing is to find at least one activity you enjoy and do that often. What if you hate all exercise, I hear you ask? Well maybe that’s the case, but it’s more likely that you’ve just not yet discovered your ‘thing’. Don’t forget to think outside the box of traditional forms of exercise here; not all exercise has to take place in a gym or on a sports field. What about walking? Dancing? Swimming? Climbing? There are so many fun (or if ‘fun’ is too much of a stretch, then try ‘not awful’) ways to move your body that you might not have even considered, so do some research and try something new. If you don’t love it, then try something different next time.
3) Reframe exercise
My next idea is to reframe how you think about exercise. This is one of my favourite things to do when I don’t feel motivated to exercise (which happens more than you’d think, as I’m often exhausted from early starts and being on my feet all day, and sometimes the last thing I want to do is more movement). If you find yourself saying ‘I have to exercise’, try simply changing this to ‘I get to exercise’. Think about it – how lucky are we to have healthy, functioning bodies that are able to lift weights, run, do yoga, swim or play tennis? How lucky are we to have time in our days to do this, even if it’s just 30 minutes a few times a week? How lucky are we to have access to a gym, park, studio, pool or court to allow us to exercise? How lucky are we to have this uninterrupted time to listen to our favourite playlist or podcast, or maybe just enjoy pure silence whilst exercising, free from the pressures of work and life? When you change how you think about exercise, and view it from a place of privilege rather than pressure, it can make a huge difference to your desire to do it. One research study found exactly this; when participants with prediabetes reframed their negative thoughts about exercise, e.g. ‘I’m just too busy to exercise’, they did more exercise once the study had finished than participants who did not reframe their thoughts (Locke et al., 2019).
Visualisation is another powerful tool that I use frequently. I might not feel 100% up for a workout, because it’s raining or I’d rather be watching Netflix, but I try to imagine how I will feel during and after I’ve finished it. For example, I tell myself that during a run I will feel alive and powerful, and afterwards I will feel energised and accomplished. If we can focus on these wonderful positive emotions that come alongside exercise we can help to override feelings of resistance that might precede a workout.
One study looked at the effects of positive visualisation on strength training, and found that participants who imagined themselves performing a specific lift to the best of their ability increased their lifting performance by 10-15lbs, whereas the control group only increased their performance by 5lbs (Hynes & Turner, 2020). This just shows the power of visualisation in exercise.
Another method that some people find useful when building the habit of doing more exercise is self-monitoring. In the most basic sense this involves recording your physical activity. This can take many forms, for example using a smart watch or app on your phone to track metrics such as steps or heart rate. It can also involve writing down your exercises, weights, sets and reps during workouts. Many people find that keeping track of data that is meaningful to them can help them to stay accountable with their fitness routines. A review of 19 studies found that self-monitoring using pedometers and smart watches can significantly reduce sedentary behaviour (Compernolle et al., 2019).
However, it’s important to note that some people may be better suited to self-monitoring than others. For some individuals self-monitoring behaviours can become obsessive, and may actually promote a negative relationship to exercise because they may become fixated on reaching arbitrary goals (such as walking 10,000 steps or burning X amount of calories) that on some days just might not be possible to reach (e.g. if you’re ill, injured or in quarantine), leaving them feeling anxious or guilty if they don’t reach their self-imposed goals.
Personally, I use my smart watch when running and swimming because it’s useful to know my pace, distance and heart rate, particularly if I’m doing an interval session, but I don’t use it when I lift weights – for that I prefer to use a good old-fashioned pen and journal to keep track of my lifts, and base my workouts on my perceived effort rather than what my watch may or may not say. So I would advise you to be a bit selective about what metrics you decide to track, and only track them if they are necessary to help you improve or stay accountable.
6) Make it sociable
I would strongly encourage you to take advantage of social support with your training to help it become habitual. This could be as simple as telling your friends and family about your exercise plans or sharing your runs on Strava, or it could be exercising with a friend or personal trainer, or taking part in a class. Research consistently shows that having a high level of social support is associated with increased physical activity across all age groups, from adolescents to older adults (Mendonca et al., 2014; Smith et al., 2017)
There are a few reasons why social support is so powerful when it comes to behaviour change. First of all being part of a community makes you feel less alone in your fitness journey, and you can help encourage and support each other. Secondly, if you’re actually exercising with somebody else it can provide accountability and can help to remove the decision-making aspect of training, which if you’re not feeling highly motivated can often feel overwhelming. Instead, you simply show up and do as you’re told.
7) Reward yourself
My final piece of advice is to reward your efforts in your journey to building a healthy habit. Have you managed ten gym sessions, or run your fastest 5km? Research has found that monetary and non-monetary incentives can help to increase exercise behaviour in people of all ages (Strohacker et al., 2014). I personally like to reward myself with new gym clothing or trainers every so often, and this has the added benefit of making me look forward to wearing them when I next train.
In time, hopefully you’ll find that the positive effects of exercise are a reward in themselves (improved mood and sleep and reduced pain and disease, to name a few), but in the initial stages of building a new habit it can be helpful to have a tangible reward to keep you committed.
One caveat here is that I’d advise against using food as a reward, because this can reinforce the idea that food needs to be earned (it doesn’t). Try to keep food and exercise separate and avoid entertaining the view that you need to ‘earn’ or ‘burn off’ the food you eat (I know this is hard, when diet culture sends this message everywhere we look). Exercise because of all of the wonderful benefits it brings to your physical, mental and social health. Eat because everybody needs to eat to stay alive, regardless of how much exercise they may or may not have done that day, and because food is delicious.
My final thoughts
I hope this has given you a few ideas about how you might like to make exercise more of a habit in your life. I know it’s hard at the beginning, and sometimes it feels like it will never become an automatic behaviour. Take your time, don’t beat yourself up if you have a day that doesn’t go to plan (it’s totally normal), and think about how great it will feel when exercise is just a part of your daily routine, rather than this big scary thing that you know you should do but keep putting off.
Brooker, P.G., Gomersall, S.R., King, N.A., & Leveritt, M.D. (2019). The feasibility and acceptability of morning versus evening exercise for overweight and obese adults: A randomized controlled trial. Contemporary clinical trials communications, 14, 100320. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conctc.2019.100320
Compernolle, S., DeSmet, A., Poppe, L. et al. (2019). Effectiveness of interventions using self-monitoring to reduce sedentary behavior in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 16(63). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0824-3
Hynes, J., M. & Turner, Z. (2020). Positive visualization and its effects on strength training. Impulse. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343834259_Positive_Visualization_and_Its_Effects_on_Strength_Training
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W. and Wardle, J. (2010), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 40, 998-1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Locke, S., McKay, R., & Jung, M. (2019). “I’m just too busy to exercise”: Reframing the negative thoughts associated with exercise-related cognitive errors. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 43, 279-287.
Mendonça, G., Cheng, L. A., Mélo, E. N., Cazuza de Farias Júnior, J. (2014). Physical activity and social support in adolescents: a systematic review, Health Education Research, 29(5) 822–839, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyu017
Milne, S., Orbell, S., Sheeran, P. (2002). Combining motivational and volitional interventions to promote exercise participation: protection motivation theory and implementation intentions. Br J Health Psychol, 7(2), 163-84. doi: 10.1348/135910702169420. PMID: 14596707.
Public Health England (2020). Health matters: Physical activity – prevention and management of long-term conditions. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-physical-activity/health-matters-physical-activity-prevention-and-management-of-long-term-conditions#the-scale-of-physical-inactivity
Schumacher, L.M., Thomas, J.G., Raynor, H.A., Rhodes, R.E., O'Leary, K.C., Wing, R.R., Bond, D.S. (2019). Relationship of consistency in timing of exercise performance and exercise levels among successful weight loss maintainers. Obesity, 27(8), 1285-1291. doi: 10.1002/oby.22535.
Smith, G. L., Banting, L., Eime, R. et al. (2017). The association between social support and physical activity in older adults: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act, 14(56). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0509-8
Strohacker, K., Galarraga, O., & Williams, D. M. (2014). The impact of incentives on exercise behavior: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 48(1), 92–99. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-013-9577-4