Do You Make This Common Mistake When Trying to Motivate Yourself to Work Out?

exercise motivation

Story at-a-glance -

  • For some, sticking to a weekly workout program is challenging despite the benefits to your mental, emotional and physical health
  • The number of people who consistently exercise each week has declined in the past years, including children who may experience significant health impact from lack of movement as they age
  • The intrinsic value and experience of exercise is a greater motivator to continue working out than external values such as health benefits, toned body or slowed aging

By Dr. Mercola

For some people, sticking with a weekly workout program can be challenging. Despite understanding the benefits to overall health and contributions to physical, mental and emotional heath, workouts don’t come easy.

Conventional wisdom doesn’t help when you’re trying to figure out how to become a person who wants their workout more than an extra hour of sleep or lunch with friends. It’s difficult to place enough value on the desire to look better or be more active when you anticipate your workout will be miserable.

Parents have the added challenge of finding care for children, or having enough energy after caring for others to spend time on themselves. Dominique Wakefield, personal trainer and wellness coach from Berrien Springs, Michigan, says:1

“Parents typically don’t get enough sleep and spend their days constantly responding to needs of another human being. That combination is emotionally and physically draining, which leads to less motivation for physical activity.”

Who Is Working Out?

Unfortunately, the number of people who are sitting on the couch, as opposed to getting exercise each day, is rising instead of decreasing. As school systems cut budgets and physical education classes are eliminated, more children are also participating in less exercise each day.

In 1999, 33 percent of children engaged in physical activity every day.2 By 2012 that number had declined to 25 percent.3

Data from the combined National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and the NHANES National Youth Fitness Survey also found that as weight increased, the amount of time spent in physical activity decreased in boys.4

According to data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), researchers found that approximately 33 percent of adults who had seen a health care provider in the previous 12 months had been advised to begin or continue an exercise program.5

In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that just slightly over 20 percent of American adults were meeting aerobic and muscle strengthening guidelines.6

Even though many of the benefits of exercise have been well publicized, it remains challenging for many people to achieve the minimum recommendations for exercise each week.

According to the Stress in America study done by the American Psychological Association (APA) completed and published in 2013, only 17 percent of people reported exercising daily.7

However, having once exercised, 53 percent of people said they felt good about themselves after working out, 30 percent experienced less stress and 35 percent said they were in a good mood after exercising.

The survey found that millennials were more likely than people of other generations to recognize the positive benefits of exercise and to exercise weekly.8 However, many reported skipping exercise because of stress in greater numbers than gen Xers, baby boomers or matures.

The Problem You May Have With Motivation to Exercise

This information speaks directly to the problems that many experience with their motivation to exercise daily. You have a firm grasp on the extrinsic value of exercise. When you engage in physical movement each day you reduce your potential risk to experience:

Cardiovascular disease

Metabolic disease

Alzheimer’s disease


Type 2 diabetes



Some cancers


Cognitive decline



This is not an exhaustive list of the health conditions you may avoid if you exercise regularly, but rather just some of the conditions affected by inactivity. The links between exercise and these conditions have been covered by the media and on this site.

However, it is usually not the knowledge of what could happen if you don’t exercise that will motivate you to move. Knowledge of the benefits of exercise, including a fit and toned body, better mood, improved creativity and productivity and slowing the aging process, also don’t appear to improve your motivation to exercise.

Each of these are extrinsic factors, or factors that exist outside of who you are and what you might immediately experience. Psychologists have found that many of the excuses for not exercising center around the discomfort you anticipate from the activity.

Theories of behavior have demonstrated that your immediate experience will often overshadow any future anticipated reward.9 In other words, you’ll find it difficult to do something uncomfortable if the reward you earn is something you’ll experience later.

Some of the common excuses for not donning workout gear and heading to the gym or the running trail are:


Being too hot or cold

Being out of breath

Sore muscles

Getting wet in the rain

Getting out of bed when it’s dark

Getting dirty

Working out in front of people

Feeling out of shape when exercising

Don’t know how to exercise and don’t want to ask

Don’t like feeling uncomfortable while exercising

Not enough time in the day to exercise

Too tired to exercise

Exercise is boring

Tried it before and didn’t like it

Don’t have the energy to exercise

Exercise is expensive

Scared of getting hurt

Don’t have anyone to exercise with

Current physical condition makes it difficult to exercise

Too overwhelming to think about starting an exercise program

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The Fix Is In

Since the problem with motivation is that most extrinsic factors are not strong enough to motivate you to exercise daily, then another strategy must be used so you can experience benefits to your physical, emotional and mental health. Dan Ariely, Ph.D., professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, clarifies what you need to start and continue working out.10

In Ariely’s many studies on the effect of motivation and performance in the workplace, his work demonstrates that in both recreational and work situations, you are more motivated by intrinsic value of what you’re creating than the extrinsic benefits you may experience. Most people anticipate how bad the workout will be, and most focus on external reasons to exercise — such as better health, toned body and slowed aging process.11

In other words, the hardest part about starting is getting started. The planning process of exercise may include anticipation of how you might feel, what you may experience and how much you don’t want to do it. Planning out an exercise calendar may therefore leave you with negative feelings.

However, in the moment, exercise boosts your mood and increases the release of hormones that boost your mood, emotions and increase your motivation. A recent study from the University of Chicago demonstrates similar results.12 During exercise, people placed greater value on their internal feelings rather than the benefits they may experience later. During an activity, participants cared more about the current activity than about past or future work.

These researchers theorized that intrinsic incentives improved experience during an action, as opposed to external incentives that held the same value both during and after an activity. Ariely believes the mistake being made is that value is being placed on extrinsic incentives, like your health and fitness goals, instead of on the immediate experience of having fun during exercise.

Putting exercise on your daily “to-do list” and just doing it is an important way of experiencing the immediate mental and emotional boost you’ll achieve. These memories of feeling good and having fun will go a long way toward increasing your motivation to continue working out.

Motivation Basics

In this 20-minute video, Ariely discusses the science behind motivation in the workplace, which centers around the intrinsic value of what you’re doing and not the payment you’ll receive for the task. The same concepts can be used when developing a motivational plan for your exercise, as your extrinsic factors are improved health, and intrinsic incentives are immediately experienced during exercise.

In the last minute of the video, Ariely identifies some of the factors that specifically increase your motivation, such as finding meaning from the activity, experiencing a challenge to your abilities, taking ownership of the action and embracing the action as part of your identity.

Michael Otto, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Boston University, discusses using exercise with his patients as it improves mood and increases success with treatment. He says:13

"Exercise is something that psychologists have been very slow to attend to. People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action. The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect."

It may be difficult to take advantage of the intrinsic incentive to exercise if you are challenging your body at a level greater than you are able to comfortably work out. When you exercise above your respiratory threshold, or the point at which it becomes difficult to talk, your immediate mood boost is delayed by approximately 30 minutes. If you are new to exercise or trying to start a new program, the lack of immediate incentive may be enough to turn you off.

Otto also cautions that keeping your attention on the outcome of a fitness program is a recipe for failure.14 Instead, by exercising to meet your current physical abilities you’ll experience a near-instant gratification and increase your motivation to continue the program. Otto continues:15

"Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise. Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That's the time you get the payoff."

Use These Strategies to Improve Your Success

As your first step, Ariely recommends putting exercise on your calendar and just do it. Exercising provides an intrinsic incentive to keep working out and the memory of the positive feedback helps motivate you to exercise the next time.

However, it is impossible to stay 100 percent motivated all the time. Your motivation ebbs and flows throughout your day and week. This is normal. There are several strategies you can use to help motivate you in the short term, so you’ll experience the long-term results and increased motivation from feeling great.

Motivational music, video, books

Inspirational stories, music and writing can spike your short-term desire and motivation to exercise. Many people find it motivating to listen to music while exercising as it helps to boost mood and distract your mind.


Whether you find a workout partner, keep a workout journal or participate in an online group community, knowing there is someone to whom you are accountable may be enough to get you started. Try joining a class or group; sometimes knowing you’ll waste money if you don’t go will be enough to get you to class.

Think positively about your workout

Much of the lack of motivation for working out often comes from the anticipation the activity will be difficult, boring or painful. Change the way you think about the activity and you’ll notice positive changes in your outlook. It may be necessary to change the activity you’re using to engage you both physically and mentally. If you’re having trouble remembering to think positively about your workout, put sticky notes around to remind you of the positive reasons you’re working out.

Work out within your limits

When your physical activity overtakes your respiratory threshold, you’ll no longer find the activity enjoyable and you’ll delay those feel good hormones by at least 30 minutes. You aren’t training for the Olympics. Instead, find an activity you enjoy, that keeps you breathing more rapidly than when you’re sitting, but not so much you can’t talk to your workout partner.

Alter your environment

Changing your environment may increase the likelihood you’ll exercise. Keep any equipment out so it’s a visible reminder. Put on your workout clothes in anticipation of working out — it may be the impetus you need to get out the door. Try working out first thing in the morning, before you come up with excuses. Remember to eat well and stay hydrated. It’s difficult to be motivated to work out when your body isn’t ready to perform.