Is This the Key to Long-Term Exercise Motivation?


Sticking to an exercise plan isn’t always easy. Sometimes you feel like curling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a snack rather than pumping iron or doing an HIIT workout. Exercise motivation is a problem for many people as evidenced by the fact that less than 25% of people meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.

People use a number of ways to work up the motivation to exercise. You can think about the many benefits that exercise has to offer – better cardiovascular health, greater strength, better physique, and a lower risk of some chronic diseases, to name a few. You can also use “self-talk” and inspiring fitness quotes for motivation. Nike has made a fortune from its well-recognized slogan – “just do It.” Yet that’s not always enough to stay fired up day in and day out, especially when so many other things compete for your time.

Exercise Motivation: What a Study Shows 

What IS the key to staying motivated to exercise? Researchers at the Iowa State University asked the same question and did a study to find out. What they found is a combination of a conditioned cue and an intrinsic reward works better than a conditioned cue by itself.

What’s a conditioned cue?  If you work out in the morning, it could be your alarm clock going off, telling you it’s time to exercise. That may work well in the beginning, when exercising is still a novelty, but, eventually, a morning will come when you shut off the alarm, pull the covers over your head, and drift back to sleep. That’s when good habits, like exercise, are thrown by the wayside. Based on research from Iowa State University, the best way to stay fired up to work out is to combine a conditioned cue, like the alarm clock going off, with an intrinsic reward. An intrinsic reward is something that offers internal satisfaction or pleasure.

The Rewards of Exercise 

So often, exercise focuses on the external rewards of working out. If you do this workout, you’ll lose weight, get a rocking body or fit into a smaller pair of jeans. Extrinsic rewards come from the outside and are built around the perceptions of others. For example, you think that people will find you more attractive if you have a firm, toned body. Yet, based on this study, extrinsic rewards aren’t as effective for long-term motivation as intrinsic rewards are.

In a nutshell, an intrinsic reward is something that provides internal satisfaction and pleasure. For example, exercises boosts the release of endorphins and brain chemicals that relieve stress and make you feel happier and more energetic. Those are good things and they have nothing to do with the size of your thighs or how you look in a swimsuit.

As this study shows, you’re more likely to exercise if your workout provides intrinsic reward. Combine that intrinsic reward with an external cue that gets you up and going and you have the ultimate combo to help you power through a workout. As the researchers in this study point out, for long-term success, focus on the intrinsic rewards of working out rather than external results, like a smaller waistline or a lower body weight.

This goes along with other studies showing you’re more likely to stick with the exercise habit if you do it for reasons other than weight loss and body transformation. One of the best areas to focus on is the way exercise makes you feel during and afterward – that feeling of mastery and accomplishment that inevitably comes when you complete a challenging workout.

How Exercise Impacts Brain Chemistry 

Exercise can even improve your mood while you’re doing it. When the blood starts flowing to your brain, your brain releases a number of chemicals that give you that “feel good” feeling that makes you come back for more. Some brain chemicals impacted by exercise include dopamine, serotonin, and a neurotransmitter that makes you feel relaxed called GABA – not to mention the release of endorphins, the chemicals that may explain “runner’s high.” Research shows the mood benefits you get from exercise can last for up to 12 hours after you stop. It’s this type of intrinsic reward that helps you stay motivated.

The study showed that even after exercise has become a habit, combining an intrinsic reward with an external cue helps you stay motivated to work out. As the researchers point out, major lifestyle changes like starting a new job, a death or illness in the family, or another life event can still derail your exercise program. That’s where habit and commitment come in. Once you’ve established a habit, it’s easier to keep going even when life makes it more challenging. You have to remember why you started working out in the first place and why that reason is still important to you.

Developing Your Intrinsic Reward

Why are you exercising? Are you doing it for an external gain, like a better physique, or because you enjoy the process itself and the feeling you get afterward? You’ll be more likely to stick with it if it’s the latter. The next time you work out, be aware of your body moving. Learn to feel and appreciate the sensation of your muscles working hard.

We’re conditioned to think that burning muscles and fatigue is unpleasant that we block those sensations rather than welcoming them. Once you learn to embrace the discomfort and not see them as threatening, you’ll approach the prospect of exercise differently. You’ll also form a deeper connection with your body. Just as you can be mindful when you eat, you can do the same when you exercise.

Another way to make exercise more intrinsically rewarding is to keep an exercise gratitude journal. After a workout, document what you accomplished and your feelings before, during, and after. Write down why you exercise, the benefits you’re getting, and how it makes you feel. It’s good to be reminded of that!

The Bottom Line

No matter what you do, you probably won’t jump out of bed every morning eager to tackle a sweat session. Yet, you’ll have more success if you learn to enjoy the experience of exercising, exercise for the right reasons, and adopt a more mindful mindset.

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