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Understanding How to Increase Your Motivation to Exercise

Understanding How to Increase Your Motivation to Exercise

Read Time • 12 Min
  • Category Experts, Mental Health
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Motivation is the amount of internal drive that we experience to engage in a particular behavior (Mears & Kilpatrick, 2008). This seems to be a factor that is crucial to exercise, but why is it that it varies so much? Different people seem to have such different levels of motivation and even a single person can vary in motivation from day to day (or even minute to minute). But what is it that motivates us to actually exercise and how can we capitalize on theories of motivation to get and keep us moving?

It has long been understood that behaviors we find satisfying and get enjoyment from (intrinsic motivation) are more likely to produce long-lasting results. Those that we engage in for some external reward separate from the behavior itself (extrinsic motivation) are still able to motivate us, but are not as likely to produce lasting results (Ryan et al., 1997). This is part of the reason why it can be hard to maintain exercise motivation for body- or appearance-related goals. However, since this early discovery about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, theories of motivation have gotten more complex and can help us to understand the multifaceted nature of motivation quite a bit better. 

Self-Determination Theory
Self-determination theory (SDT) is quite complex and combines five smaller theories to explain the many complexities of motivation. However, here I will describe some of the most important components of the theory related to exercise (Deci & Ryan, 2012).

Basic Psychological Needs: First, SDT is concerned with the motivation that underlies all the choices that humans make. It suggests that we have three basic psychological needs: autonomy (having agency over one’s life), competence (being able to control outcomes and achieve mastery), and relatedness (having connection to others). When these three psychological needs are met, this fosters a sense of well-being. However, if any of these three needs are not met, then we will be motivated to engage in behaviors to fulfill those needs. To zoom out to our motivation to exercise, the most important factor in determining our long-term motivation for exercise is autonomy, or the idea that we can exercise choice with regards to our exercise behaviors (when/where/how we exercise). Beliefs in our own capability to engage in the workouts and that we feel connected to others in the process will enhance our motivation, but it seems the absence of these components will not necessarily “harm” our motivation levels (Teixeira et al., 2012). 

Intrinsic Motivation: The central needs related to intrinsic motivation are competence and autonomy. We must feel that we are able to achieve mastery and that we are making our own choices in order to feel that we are truly gaining internal satisfaction from a behavior like exercise. In fact, one study found that offering external rewards for a behavior that someone is already intrinsically motivated to do reduces their sense of autonomy (they feel they no longer choose it themselves) and subsequently reduces their motivation (Deci, Koestener, & Ryan, 2999). This is particularly true when the behavior is highly interesting and the rewards are tangible, expected ahead of time, and only slightly related to the performance of the behavior (Cameron et al., 2001). In essence, it is important to be intentional about how and when you are rewarding yourself for exercise behavior. 

Extrinsic Motivation: Our extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is largely driven by how much value the individual places on the behavior (internalization). The more the individual understands why it is important to engage in that behavior, the more likely they will actually follow through with it. This level of internalization helps us to understand why some people are resistant, others only partially adopt a behavior, and others still deeply internalize it and make a behavior part of their daily life and routine. It is important to recognize that there is both a cognitive and emotional component to this “understanding” - many of us logically know why it is important to engage in a behavior, but struggle with the emotional connection to it. Therefore, education and self-reflection regarding the importance of physical activity is a critical component of increasing motivation to exercise. 

Goal Setting: Lastly, the goals that we set for certain behaviors are also differentially associated with our well-being. We set goals related to those three basic psychological needs. However, those goals focused on things such as monetary gain, physical appearance, or our number of followers on social media tend to be linked with lower well-being and motivation. On the other hand, goals related to things like building a sense of community and close relationships, as well as growing as a person, tend to be linked with greater wellness and motivation. When it comes to exercise, the goals that will lead to longer-lasting behavior change are those focusing on intrinsic factors such as personal satisfaction, personal health or strength, or to build relationships with others. The goal here is to reduce or remove the intention for external validation as your goal. 

Theory of Planned Behavior
The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) suggests that the best predictor of engaging in a behavior (like exercise) is our intention, or the amount of effort we are able and willing to invest in the performance of that behavior in the future. There are three core components that influence our behavioral intentions: attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control (Ajzen, 1991). 

Attitudes: Our attitudes are our overall judgments and evaluations that we make regarding a particular behavior. These attitudes are formed through social interactions with others, our expectations for what will happen when we engage in that behavior, and general beliefs about the behavior. For example, this is largely where social comparison can hinder our motivation levels. When we think, “compared to them, I’ll never be fit,” this negative attitude tends to reduce our intention and motivation to engage in fitness-related behaviors. Conversely, if we change that attitude to, “I have a long way to grow, but want to get better at this,” we are acknowledging our current state and allowing for and believing in our potential for growth. This will increase our intention and motivation to engage in that behavior. 

Subjective Norms: Subjective norms are the overall judgments of the social groups that we find ourselves in. If we believe that others in our environment want us to engage in a particular behavior, we are more likely to be motivated to comply with that norm. When we find ourselves in a social group that prioritizes or values a particular behavior (like fitness), we are more likely to comply with that norm established by the value. For example, if you move to a new city where there is a large fitness- and activity-related culture, it is likely that you will be motivated to comply with that culture in order to fit into the social community. 

Perceived Behavioral Control: Finally, perceived behavioral control involves an individual’s assessment of their ability to engage in a particular behavior. There are often factors that help to facilitate a behavior (access to gyms, beliefs in our ability, etc.) and others that get in our way of engaging in an activity (lack of time, pain, traveling too much, etc.). When we believe that we have the tools we need to be able to do what it takes to engage in a behavior, we are more likely to be motivated to do it!

Tips for Increasing Motivation
I know these theories can be a lot to understand. However, here are some tips for increasing motivation that come directly from these two theories of motivation. I encourage you to think of your own tips that can help you and others to stay motivated to move and fuel your bodies.

Identify your rationale: “Know your why.” While this common motivation message all across instagram is often misinterpreted, there is actually some theoretical basis to it. Through education on the benefits of physical activity or just movement, this can increase a sense of autonomy and control over one’s own health and fitness. It can also improve your overall attitude toward the behavior and make you “buy into” the process. The more knowledge you have about something, the more responsibility you have to do something with that knowledge. 

Identify your attitudes toward exercise: Similar to knowing why you work out, it can be important to observe the attitudes you generally have toward working out. If you go into exercise with self-defeating beliefs, then it is highly likely that you will not feel like working out at all. However, if you can be intentional about changing those attitudes toward recognizing that it is difficult, but you will be kind to yourself regardless, then you will likely feel more motivation to get in those extra reps!

Balance planning with flexibility: Having a plan for our exercise behaviors can significantly increase our feelings of competence; knowing what we will be doing each day makes us feel more capable to do the exercises. However, keep in mind that autonomy is also an important contributor to our levels of motivation to exercise. Because we won’t always feel particularly motivated, even if we have an exercise “plan” (like the Fitness Blender programs or challenges), it can be important to be flexible within that plan. Maybe one day the best option for you is to go for a walk or to do some yoga rather than doing HIIT. Some movement is better than no movement, so being able to exercise autonomy can keep us motivated rather than giving up on the program altogether. 

Goal setting: When setting goals for yourself in a fitness setting (which helps with motivation!), there are some general guidelines to make them most effective. Too easy? You’ll likely find them underwhelming and not stimulating enough. This can decrease motivation. Too difficult? This will likely be overwhelming and lead to you shutting down. Therefore, there is a balance of setting goals that are challenging, but not too difficult. At the same time, make sure those goals are intrinsic in nature, meaning they are intended for overall improvement/growth rather than external validation. 

Give yourself choices: Having some options, but not too many, is the right balance for increasing our motivation. We want to perceive that we have some ability to choose and that we aren’t pigeonholed into a single option. When it comes to workouts, people often will think that there is one “best” way to work out (for example, HIIT is best). Then, it becomes easy to fall prey to common cognitive distortions like all-or-nothing thinking that tell us that we either have to do HIIT or it isn’t worth it. Instead, try to create an arsenal of multiple workout options that you can choose from on a daily/weekly basis. 

Promote the social side of fitness: Social interaction within the exercise space provides the opportunity for encouragement and accountability. This can look a lot of ways including having a partner you exercise with, participating in a social club that also offers sports opportunities, or our personal favorite - engaging with the Fitness Blender community! Particularly for folks over 59 years of age, the social component to physical activity becomes increasingly  more important (Steltenpohl et al., 2019). Additionally, placing yourself in social environments where exercise and living well is a priority is more likely to increase your motivation/desire to exercise. 

What came to mind as you were reading about these theories that might help with improving your motivation to exercise? Share these tips with us so we can all benefit!

Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Licensed Psychologist


Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Cameron, J., Banko, K. M., & Pierce, W. D. (2001). Pervasive negative effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation: The myth continues. The Behavior Analyst, 24, 1-44. 

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668. 

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory.

Hagger, M. S. (2012). Advances in motivation in exercise and physical activity.

Mears, J., & Kilpatrick, M. (2008). Motivation for exercise: Applying theory to make a difference in adoption and adherence. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 12(1), 20-26.

Ryan, R., Frederick, C. M., Lepes, D., Rubio, N., & Sheldon, K. M. (1997). Intrinsic motivation and exercise adherence. International Journal of Short Psychology, 28, 335-354.

Steltenpohl, C. N., Shuster, M., Peist, E., Pham, A., & Mikels, J. A. (2019). Me time, or we time? Age differences in motivation for exercise. The Gerontologist, 59(4), 709-717.

Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. R. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and PHysical Activity, 9(78), 1-30.