The motivation to exercise can come from wanting to lose weight, to be healthier, or to feel more energised.
But sometimes, it can be hard to find the time — or the energy — to get up and take on that 30-minute walk or strength set in the gym.
The truth is, feeling unmotivated is perfectly normal, even some of the most competitive athletes waver at times. But how you can combat this feeling and push yourself?
In this Fitness First guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about motivation, including what can cause people to lose it and how to stay motivated even if you’re low on energy.
What is motivation?
Motivation, in the context of exercise, is the driving force that compels us to engage in physical activity at a consistent level. Think of motivation as the physiological foundation that propels us to commit to regular exercise.
But, exercise motivation is unique to you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. Your reasons for exercising and staying motivated will be entirely different for the person standing next to you in the gym. It might be the sense of accomplishment after you’ve just set a new personal best, the joy of being outdoors or the peace of mind that comes with stress relief.
Why is motivation important for exercise?
Think of motivation as your ‘why’ — the reason you hit the gym, go for a run or attend a yoga session. Motivation is essential for keeping you on track, but it also helps to:
- Push past blockers — Exercise isn't always smooth sailing. There are days when you feel tired, demotivated, or faced with unexpected challenges. That's where motivation becomes your inner coach. It's the voice that says, "You can do it!" when you're tempted to quit. It helps you overcome obstacles, push through fatigue, and bounce back from setbacks.
- Achieve your goals — Motivation helps set your sights on your goals and guides you toward them. Whether you're aiming to shed pounds, build muscle, or simply feel healthier, motivation reminds you why you started this journey in the first place. It's the driving force behind your efforts.
- Be consistent — Consistency is the secret of fitness. It's what turns sporadic workouts into lasting habits. Motivation is your trusty companion on this journey. It keeps you on track when life gets busy, or the initial excitement fades. It ensures you show up, even on those days when you'd rather stay in bed.
- Boost your mood — Exercise motivation isn't just about physical results; it's also a mood booster. When you work out, your body releases endorphins and dopamine, also known as the ‘feel-good’ hormones. Staying motivated means you get a regular dose of these mood enhancers, increasing happiness and reducing stress.
- Improve your confidence — The more you see progress in your fitness journey, the more motivated you become. Achieving your goals, whether big or small, boosts your confidence and reinforces your belief in your ability to succeed. It's a self-perpetuating cycle where success fuels motivation, which in turn leads to more success.
What can cause people to lose motivation?
There can be several reasons why people lose motivation when it comes to working out, but some of the most common include:
- Lack of clear goals — Without clear and achievable goals, many people can struggle to find a sense of purpose or direction with their exercise regime. Motivation can deplete when they don’t know what they’re working towards.
- Feeling burnout — Overexertion and pushing yourself too hard without adequate rest can lead to burnout. This physical and mental exhaustion can drain motivation and enthusiasm.
- Lack of progress — When people don't see tangible results from their efforts, they may become disheartened. A lack of visible progress can lead to a sense of futility and reduced motivation.
- Boredom — If you’re consistently doing the same workouts, day in and day out, it can get extremely repetitive and extremely fast. Make sure to vary your workouts throughout the week so you don’t get stuck in that monotonous feeling.
What are the three key components of sustainable motivation?
A theory often utilised in elite sports is the Self-Determination Theory by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Deci and Ryan argue that to have the highest quality of self-generated motivation, there are three psychological factors you need to tackle:
- Perception of autonomy
Let’s explore each in a little more detail:
1. Feeling in control (Perception of autonomy)
If you don’t feel in control of something, you’ll believe you don’t have the power to change it. That’s why many smokers aren’t motivated to quit despite the health risks; they believe their nicotine addiction is beyond their control. Similarly, someone who doesn’t think they can control their weight will see exercise as pointless.
To increase your perception of control, remember that it’s your choice to exercise. Having this mindset helps you become accountable to yourself so that when you don’t feel like exercising, you can challenge yourself.
2. Feeling a sense of achievement (Competence)
We get a real buzz from having our achievements recognised in all areas of our lives.
The problem with exercising is that these achievements aren’t quite as clear-cut as in places like work or school. Without setting tangible goals, it’s difficult to appreciate the progress you’ve made, and you often won’t have an authority figure there who can outwardly recognise your achievements.
If you’re on a mission to lose weight, celebrate in a different way; perhaps treat yourself to some new clothes now that you can physically see the results of your hard work.
By consistently celebrating your achievements — however small they may be — you’ll condition yourself to push that little bit harder to reach your next goal.
3. Feeling connected with others (Relatedness)
The truth is that humans are social beings. Training alone might be fine at first, but eventually, it can take its toll on your motivation.
A great way to combat this is to start taking regular classes and chatting with people there. Get on first-name terms with someone you really click with, then arrange a workout session later in the week. Few things motivate you to get to the gym more than knowing someone is expecting you.
You should also make sure people know about your goals, too. Telling a friend or member of your family that you want to lose weight or build countability will help push you that little bit further. You’ll want to have something good to report the next time they ask about your progress!
How to stay motivated when exercising
1. Develop a workout plan
Develop a structured workout plan that outlines the type of exercise, duration, and frequency you’ll be doing. Include a mix of cardiovascular, strength, flexibility, and balance exercises as variety helps keep your workouts engaging and prevents boredom.
2. Vary your training
Even when you have a great training programme that works wonders at first, your body adapts to the new load after a few weeks, and the improvements slow or stop.
Fitness First personal trainer Suzi Natal sees many new clients who are experiencing this kind of adaptation and are puzzled.
“Often, people will come to me explaining that their usual routine has simply stopped working. They have been training for some time and are no longer seeing any results.
What they don’t realise is that the body is a complex and highly adaptive machine. The more you train it through specific exercises or movements, the more efficient it will become at completing these.
This is great for performance in a sport and for getting good form, but it will not always help you reach your training goals.”
Mike Battaglia, a personal trainer at Fitness First, explains: “Changing your exercise programme and training variables will keep your mind excited and your body guessing. Whether you want to improve your maximal strength, move a few kilos, or tone up, changing the stimulus is a must.”
3. Set realistic goals
For Mike Battaglia, unrealistic goal setting is one of the biggest reasons people lose motivation.
“As time goes by and life gets in the way, the commitment of five times a week soon becomes two or three, making our original goals less achievable and, as a result, our training quantity plateaus. The same happens with our diet and nutrition plans as people make radical changes to their diet that cannot be sustained long term.”
Mike explains that you need to be realistic with goal-setting. Having well-defined objectives gives your workouts purpose and direction, making it easier to stay motivated.
4. Find your passion
Discovering physical activities you genuinely enjoy is essential for long-term exercise motivation.
Experiment with different forms of exercise to identify what resonates with you. It might be a team sport, a dance class, hiking in nature, or practising yoga. You're more likely to look forward to your workouts and stay motivated when you find activities that bring you joy.
5. Set rewards
Reward yourself for reaching specific milestones in your fitness journey, as they act as positive reinforcement for your hard work.
Ensure your rewards align with your goals and serve as incentives to stay on track. For example, if your goal is weight loss, treat yourself to a healthy spa day or a new workout set when you reach your milestone.
Will tracking workouts help improve motivation?
Tracking your workouts can significantly improve your motivation. Firstly, it offers a tangible representation of your progress over time, whether lifting heavier weights, running longer distances or accomplishing more reps. Witnessing these achievements provides a sense of accomplishment that can reignite your motivation by reinforcing the idea that your hard work is really starting to pay off.
Tracking your workouts is also great for setting clear and measurable goals, and the satisfaction of achieving these can be extremely motivating, pushing you to aim higher. Keeping a record of your workouts also holds you accountable, making it more challenging to skip sessions or deviate from a training plan.
What role does nutrition play in exercise motivation?
Nutrition plays a crucial role in motivation by directly impacting both the physical and mental aspects of our well-being.
However, it can also influence:
- Energy levels — Proper nutrition ensures that your body has an adequate supply of energy to fuel your workouts. When you provide your body with the right balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, you feel energised and ready to tackle your exercise routine no matter what the day has thrown at you. Inadequate nutrition or skipping meals can lead to low energy levels, making it difficult to find the motivation to work out.
- Recovery — Nutrition is essential for post-workout recovery. After exercise, your muscles need nutrients to repair and grow. A diet rich in protein and essential nutrients supports muscle recovery, reducing post-exercise soreness and fatigue. When you recover well, you're more likely to stay motivated to exercise consistently.
- Mood and mental well-being — Nutrition has a significant impact on your mood and mental health. Consuming a balanced diet with essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals can help regulate neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in mood and motivation. Proper nutrition can help stabilise your mood and reduce the risk of depression or anxiety that might undermine exercise motivation.
- Hydration — Proper hydration is a fundamental aspect of nutrition. Dehydration can lead to decreased exercise performance, early fatigue, and reduced motivation to work out.
- Cognitive function — Your brain relies on a steady supply of nutrients to function optimally. Good nutrition supports cognitive function, including decision-making, focus, and motivation. When your brain is well-nourished, you're better equipped to make exercise a priority and stay motivated.
- Weight management — Nutrition is closely linked to weight management, which can significantly impact exercise motivation. Maintaining a healthy weight or working toward weight-related fitness goals can be motivating in itself. Proper nutrition helps you achieve and sustain a healthy weight, which can boost your motivation to continue exercising.
To learn more, read our beginner’s guide to protein and nutrition.
How do you stay motivated during periods of low energy or illness?
It can be challenging to stay motivated when you really aren’t in the mood, your energy levels have depleted to zero, or you simply aren't feeling well.
- Listen to your body — First and foremost, it's essential to listen to your body. If you're genuinely ill or fatigued, pushing yourself too hard can be counterproductive and even detrimental to your health. Rest and recovery are crucial during these times.
- Set realistic goals — Adjust your expectations and set realistic, achievable goals for your workouts. Instead of aiming for your usual high-intensity exercise like HIIT, consider gentler forms of movement like light stretching or short walks. The key is to keep moving in a way that feels manageable and not to overexert yourself.
- Modify your routine — Modify your exercise routine to accommodate your current energy levels or physical condition. This might mean reducing the duration or intensity of your workouts or trying alternative forms of exercise that are less strenuous.
- Focus on consistency — During low-energy periods or times when you’re not feeling your best, prioritise consistency over intensity. Even a short, low-intensity workout or stretching session can help you maintain a sense of routine and prevent a complete break from your exercise habits.
- Set short-term goals — Instead of focusing on long-term fitness goals, set short-term, manageable goals specific to your current situation. For example, aim to complete a certain number of light workouts in a week or achieve a specific stretching or mobility goal.