Someone who has known me for 27 years asked me the other day how I stay motivated to exercise. I’ve been exercising regularly since I was in the fifth grade, and (with very few breaks) my exercise motivation has stayed consistently high.
Oddly enough, I never thought about this before. I have something many people want —consistent exercise motivation — and never thought about sharing it with others. I took it for granted. But I know from experiences, these are the best mental strategies to emulate (the ones that are natural and automatic). So if you’d like to duplicate my mental strategy for exercise motivation, here is my answer to the question:
The immediate reward is the biggest motivation for me. It has the most influence on my desire to exercise. When I do something aerobic — something that gets my heart pumping and gets me breathing hard — I feel much better for the rest of the day, and usually the day after too. Lifting weights or doing pushups or pull-ups — although these make me look better — they don’t make me feel a lot better. Don’t get me wrong, any kind of exercise will make you feel better than being sedentary, but aerobic exercise makes me feel better than any other kind, and it is my desire for that good feeling that motivates me more than anything else.
To make myself feel great, I have to be breathing a bit and sweating a bit, and I have to keep it up for fifteen minutes or more, but when I do, I feel noticeably better for the rest of the day and into the next day. I sleep better. I feel more relaxed and content and energetic.
Another important exercise motivation is the joy of improvement. It's fun to see something getting better. I can do something today, and a couple days from now I can do more. I am getting measurably stronger. I am running measurably faster or longer. That's motivating.
Vanity is another significant exercise motivation. So even though my most important exercise motivation is for aerobic exercise, I still lift weights and do calisthenics, motivated by the joy of improvement and a desire to look better.
I think it's nice that exercise is "good for me" but that doesn't really motivate me much, except maybe in a general, vague kind of way. It’s a weak motivator, and if that’s all I had for exercise motivation, I doubt it would be enough to get me to work out very often.
One of the exercise motivations that has the biggest impact on whether or not I actually work out comes from the fact that I usually work out with my wife. When I say, "let's go to the gym," it benefits both of us. I have more motivation for both of us to work out than I do to work out myself. I have a similar feeling about cooking food. When we’re both eating, I spend more time to make good food. When I’m just making something for myself, I’m not as motivated to take the time.
These motivations are a mixture of long-term, shorter-term, and even shorter-term motivation. One of my super-short-term (but significant) exercise motivations is listening to music. I don’t drive much, and I’m a writer, so when I’m at home I don’t listen to a lot of music. But I love music. One of the few times I can really turn up the music and enjoy it is while exercising. I often do more exercise than I planned because I want to keep listening to a song. And studies show people who listen to music work out harder than people who don’t. The “perceived effort” while listening to music is lower, so you end up working out harder.
At the beginning of a workout, I do something else you might call “motivational.” I start slowly. In the first ten minutes of working out, you might not feel like it. You might not feel very energetic. But as you start to move and your body warms up, usually you’ll feel more energetic (especially if you’re listening to good music). You’ll want to exert yourself more. Just follow your desire to move. Don't make yourself go hard when you don’t feel up to it. Start slow and easy and let your motivation rise as your workout proceeds.
When you’re first getting into shape (or back into shape) do what feels good. Use Jack LaLanne’s first rule: Start easy, do what you can, and increase the intensity and length of your workouts gradually. Learn more about how Jack LaLanne works out.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.