Workout Motivation: Finding Your ‘Why’

workout inspiration I have been working out since the Reagan administration. It was the Cold War and I had to be ready. ‘Red Dawn’ and ‘The Day After’ convinced me I needed to be bigger, faster, stronger.  Plus I was eager to show up the school bully who tormented me weekly. Scrawny thirteen-year-old me began hitting the weights in a dank suburban New York basement. My mom never bothered me when I was in my training dungeon. The only workout resources I had were bodybuilding magazines and old Army pamphlets I found at a garage sale. I devoted myself to Arnold’s workout routine and added some Bertil Fox chest work and Tom Platz leg exercises into the mix. This happened two hours per day, six days a week, for years.  I also played soccer, joined the wrestling team and ran track and field (200 and 400-meter sprint, discus, and shot put).  As a teenager, I was brimming with testosterone and idealism. I could do anything.  But I looked like a living string bean: 6 feet tall and 137lbs. That began to change over the coming months as I continued to lift. I quickly discovered that not only was I getting stronger by leaps and bounds but I was also calmer.  I looked forward to my self-imposed torture sessions. They helped me deal with my world. There were many reasons I began my training. Some have changed but many have stayed the same.  Working out became my hobby and is now a deeply ingrained habit. The why behind your actions is perhaps the strongest driver of motivation. Finding the ‘why’ is a crucial step to achieving your goals.  Why do you workout?  What is your motivation to exercise?

To summon effective motivation, the reason behind it must be highly personal and come from within. Emotions, not intellect, are the primary drivers of motivation.  When I work with a new client, I warn them right off the bat, “I can’t motivate you”.  What I can do is make things easier by removing the guesswork and decision fatigue out of the equation. I can also provide encouragement but I can’t make them eat better and lift heavy things. Instruction only goes so far. We must individually investigate what truly moves us to action and embrace those feelings, even if they are uncomfortable. Ask yourself, “why am I doing this?” Really drill down to find the real reasons behind your decisions. It may be anger, sadness, loneliness, joy or fear. Embrace those core emotions and use them to guide your motivation. You will find an urgent and sudden need to want to make a change. If you really don’t desire change, you will set yourself up for failure. Your unconscious will say, “Eh, not so fast. We were just kidding. Time to sabotage this little foray into fitness.” Ever try to get a smoker (or alcoholic or shopaholic) to quit when they really didn’t want to? They will foil their effort every time. Intrinsic motivation is the key. If we urge ourselves to continually ask, “why am I training (or doing some other activity)?” our unconscious mind will provide us with the real answer. Reframing those answers inside a positive narrative can have incredibly powerful effects. If you don’t have the drive to encourage yourself then no one will.

Emotions are paramount in driving human behavior.  It is easy to overthink, rationalize, or intellectualize your actions but inspiration and action come from your inner emotions. The only thing ‘thought’ can do is override an impulse. But what if we can fabricate that impulse? Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman discovered our decisions are fundamentally biased by our emotions (read ‘The Undoing Project’). Even the most rational actors are affected. Use your emotions to your advantage and find some strong anchors to motivate yourself into the gym and toward a better diet.

Many people are unfortunately driven by physical discontent and discomfort.  A growing body of psychological research over the last 60 years has shown the demotivational effects of punishment and pain as long-term drivers in behavior.  If you are working out because you are fearful of becoming fat or sick it’ll be difficult to sustain your determination and focus. For example, my dad got heart disease when he was 72 years old. His doctor told him to cut out all the sugar and start eating low-fat foods (albeit not the best advice) in order to prevent a future heart attack.  My dad was fearful of dying and consequently ate a very clean diet for about 6 months. Then the occasional steak and ice cream started to slip into his diet.  A year later he was almost back to his old unrestricted diet, despite the dire existential motivation. I hear stories like this all the time. This concept can also be applied to people motivated solely by weight loss.  Most research shows that 80-95% of all individuals who lose weight gain it all back within 2 to 5 years. If your motivation for working out is weight loss, it’ll be very hard to keep up your drive. Negative emotions that accompany failure are not productive. Reframe your pain into something pleasurable. Perhaps focus on how you will feel when you are healthy. Focus on how your butt will look in those jeans, how your arms will look in a tank top, or how your energy levels will go up. Focus on the positive end result. Perhaps most importantly, learn to enjoy the process. Many people love the challenge and as they get closer to the end they simply push back the goal posts. However, once we uncover the ‘why’ behind our true motivations we can live comfortably with ourselves or others. 

Motivational Tips:

  • The best exercise you can do is one that you like.
  • Do not diet.  Simply eat smarter.
  • Set realistic, measurable goals that are time-based.
  • Tell many people about your goals (not strangers on the street – people you know well).
  • Focus on success, not failure.
  • Make short term achievable goals and progress incrementally.
  • Break bad habits but replacing them with good ones (The Habit Loop).
  • Schedule your workouts and plan your meals. Or hire a great personal trainer. 
  • Move away from instant gratification and onto delayed gratification.
  • Pay attention to the ‘now’ and move away from past/future day dreaming (Finding Flow)
  • Don’t think about it and just start. Motion creates emotion
  • Use social media to ‘out’ yourself. The double-edged sword of support and fear of embarrassment is a strong motivator. 

workout motivation help

Goal setting strategies are proven to work, but it takes a little more than saying to yourself “I want to drop 10 lbs” or “I’m going to quit eating sugar”.  Studies have documented that individuals with clear, written goals are significantly more likely to succeed than those without specifically defined goals. When was the last time you actually wrote down your goals? If you are truly invested in achieving something valuable, isn’t it worth five minutes of your time to set up a proper outline?  Organizing your hopes and thoughts into written word will help set up manageable and practical steps for achievement. There are countless strategies for developing and setting goals. Past success is a good indicator of future achievement. So if you have an approach you like, stick with that. If not, I have assembled a plan with five painless steps which can be utilized to produce high rates of success. Take a few minutes and do it for yourself.  Don’t just read it, actually, do it.  Thinking without action is called daydreaming. Read, plan and then act. Get a pen and piece of paper….I’ll wait.

1.  Get something to write on (a computer is fine but handwriting with an actual pen and paper is better). This is the easy step.  Many studies have shown the actual act of writing down a goal already gives you a huge advantage.  Writing and then seeing the words in front of you help. Make sure the goals are specific and time dependent. Generalities don’t seem to work because there is no clear vision or time pressure.

2. Evidence-based research shows visualizing your weight loss goals can be remarkably effective.  Maybe close your eyes for a minute and picture yourself achieving them. Run a little movie in your head. Seriously. Is it color or black and white? Does it have sound? Is it told in the first or third person? The more detail the better. Make sure you visualize the achievement and also some of the obstacles you will encounter. Then, and this is very important, write down 2-3 goals you’d like to achieve this year – and leave a few lines under each goal.  Make them specific and inside the realm of possibility. No goals of finding and capturing Bigfoot (he doesn’t exist…sightings are most likely fake or bears walking on their hind legs) or winning a Super Bowl; not likely to happen by the end of this year, unless you’re close already. Set quantifiable, specific and realistic goals.

3. Write down 3 positive reasons why you want to achieve these goals.  Be real with yourself and write them in the positive frame. Why are you interested in pursuing this goal?  i.e. I’d like to lose my butt weight so I can:

  • (a) feel more energy and be healthier 
  • (b) feel less self-conscience at the beach and gym
  • (c) look more attractive to my boyfriend/girlfriend.

4. Write down 3 negative consequences if you don’t achieve your goal.  Essentially gaining leverage on yourself. Carrot and the stick. This will push you to move in the direction of the less painful and pull toward the more pleasurable goals.  Be specific and list the aggravation and/or discomfort caused by not achieving the goal   i.e. I’d like to start meditating this year on a regular basis, however, if I don’t:

  • (a) my stress/anxiety level will remain high and that will affect my personal relationships
  • (b) I will continue to feel overwhelmed, which affect my work
  • (c) My brain and health will not be reaping the scientifically valid benefits of daily meditation (it takes only 5 minutes!) and I will probably not fix my bad sleeping habits.

5.  This step is the easiest and hardest one to do but it is also the most effective technique.  No writing required (unless of course, writing is one of your goals). Do one thing every day for 365 days in pursuit of your goal. This activity does not necessarily have to be directly related, but it must be in support of your goal. This proactive task will keep it fresh in your mind and provide some mental comfort, keeping you on track.  Daily action steps will habituate positive behavior and build self-confidence. For example, make a phone call to a gym about a membership (for a weight loss goal); read an article on how to improve your business (for an increased sales goal ), or do one nice thing daily for your wife/husband (for an improved marriage goal). There are many things you can do daily to achieve your goals. Other examples include: talking to people who already achieved success; joining a club;  participating in a running race; looking up a relevant website and adding content; buying a food diary and writing in it etc.

By focusing on the process instead of the end result, you can summon enormous power. Once you learn to love the challenge and the path, the achievement comes easily. Life happens no matter what. You can drive through life aimlessly letting things happen to you or you can take the steering wheel and make things happen for you. The choice is yours. Whether you achieve your goals or not, celebrate the fact that the process of striving toward something has improved the person you are. You have built self-discipline, discovered new things about your abilities and manifested more of your human potential. These are intrinsic rewards that will boost your self-confidence. That’s some tangible emotional currency.

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