As most people know, our bodies need exercise. We need to be moving a certain amount every day for our bodies to be working optimally. Some people have a certain sport that they love and it’s easy to maintain a scheduled exercise routine. But for others, exercise just doesn’t come as naturally. So how do we stay consistent? How do we make sure our bodies are moving each and every day?
Exercise consistency depends on where your motivation comes from – whether it’s controlled or autonomous.
Controlled motivation reflects an outward gain or reward, that often involves pressure or negativity. Someone who’s motivation is controlled tends to exercise to avoid feelings of guilt, compete with others, or change their appearance (1). An exerciser with controlled motivation might:
Do a gym routine with a friend since they swear it’ll make them lose weight quicker.
Run to burn off a cupcake they ate earlier in the day.
Complete a marathon just to brag about it to their family.
Go on the treadmill every day to lose a few pounds before attending a wedding.
Do an exercise class only to receive financial compensation from their workplace.
Choose an ab-focused pilates video to do every morning just to see some definition in the abs.
Treat themselves to an ice cream cone as a reward for running every day of a week.
The thing is, when exercise is determined mainly by controlled motivation, it’s not sustainable. External rewards won’t always be present – there won’t always be a wedding to ‘tone down’ for, exercise won’t always lead to weight loss, ‘reward’ foods may end up being too expensive, and there won’t always be that friend who recommends a new routine to try. It’s okay to have some controlled motivation - in fact, it may be what gets you started with exercise in the first place, but autonomous motivation must also be present to create a habit.
Autonomous motivation occurs when someone is motivated by the intrinsic satisfaction of a task or activity, or its alignment with their values. Someone who is motivated largely by autonomous motivation is motivated without the influence of others – it comes from within (1). With exercise, autonomous motivation may look like…
Setting a new personal record for pull-ups or bench presses, since it makes you feel strong and accomplished.
Arranging a game of beach soccer to enjoy time with friends.
Running on the treadmill mid-afternoon to feel the adrenaline and wake up from a tiring morning.
Trying a new dance class as a date with a significant other.
Making a goal to bike to work most days because it gives you a good start to the morning, and makes you feel less anxious throughout the day.
Using a hula-hoop, because – why not!
If you aren’t sure what the intrinsic satisfaction of working out feels like, it’s important to pay attention and try to find it. This is what will drive that autonomous motivation and create a sustainable exercise habit. Here’s what you should look out for when doing physical activities:
Increased energy levels.
A sense of accomplishment or empowerment.
Improved sleep patterns.
Intensified hunger and fullness signals throughout the day.
Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
Fewer body aches and pains (low to moderate intensity).
Improved sensitivity to the body’s own insulin, immediately improving blood sugar control.
Improved body image.
Increased mental focus.
Increased strength and stamina.
Decreased depression and stress levels.
Alleviation of menstrual cramps.
Enhanced coordination and balance.
Increased range mobility and range of motion (1).
To me, body image is one of the most interesting benefits. You may think that as you work out, your body changes and therefore, your body image does along with it. However, the science shows that body image increases even if there aren’t changes in physical appearance. Most of the improvement in body image comes from a focus on why the exercise matters to a person, and an acknowledgement of their efforts. A person’s beliefs in their own capabilities plays an important role – as someone continues to engage in enjoyable and interesting physical activity, their self-efficacy improves as well as their body image (2).
Noticing, and finding patterns
When you focus on the immediate positive effects exercise can have on mental and emotional health, you’ll likely become more motivated to find a time to exercise. Something that I find helps a lot of clients is to keep track of the different intrinsic benefits you may feel during and/or after your workout. In addition to that, write down what type of exercise you did and how long you did it for. This way, you’ll be able to identify which activities are the most beneficial to you and you’ll be able to continuously identify how you’re feeling afterwards, which will both contribute to you being more physically active in the long term.
Focusing less on controlled rewards can take time. We live in a society that is ingrained in results, so it's normal that you may not be able to integrate this concept immediately. Start by asking yourself some questions – How does your current exercise routine make you feel? Who are you doing it for? Is it sustainable? If you love it, you’re doing it for yourself, and it’s sustainable, then perfect. Otherwise, start trying to notice intrinsic benefits and finding which activities are truly sustainable for you!
1. Clifford, Dawn, and Laura Curtis. Motivational Interviewing. Guilford Press, 2016.
2. Scritchfield, Rebecca. Body Kindness. Workman Publishing, 2016.