The season for setting new goals is upon us, and I thought I would take this opportunity to share some information on motivation. Many people choose to set New Year’s Resolutions focused on exercise, but most of these resolutions do not lead to lasting behaviour change. Part of the reason for the lack of follow-through is likely due to the motivations behind these goals.

According to Self-Determination Theory, motivation occurs on a continuum, with activities that are driven by rewards or punishments occurring on one end of the continuum (external motivations), and activities driven by enjoyment or interest occurring at the other end of the continuum (intrinsic motivations).

Examples of external motivations related to exercise:

  • You want to lose weight or change your appearance
  • You want to gain approval from others (or to avoid disapproval)

Examples of intrinsic motivations related to exercise:

  • You find the activity itself fun or enjoyable
  • You enjoy the challenge presented by the activity

    Try something new!

External and intrinsic motivations both lead to exercise, BUT externally driven activities often feel more pressured, whether that pressure is coming directly from other people, or from within yourself. Most people find it unpleasant to feel pressured into something, and end up resisting or avoiding the activity in some way as a result. In the long run, intrinsic motivation is related to more regular exercise.

It takes some time to develop intrinsic motivations. For starters, you need to find an activity that you enjoy and find optimally challenging. Some ideas that might help are:

  • Trying out different activities based on interest, not just on what you think might lead to the fastest physical changes. It doesn’t matter how effective a workout is if you never do it! Find something you like, and you will do it more often and over the longer-term, which will be more likely to lead to the changes you want to see.
  • Set realistic expectations for your current fitness level. If the exercise is too uncomfortable or painful, you are less likely to enjoy yourself, and therefore less likely to do it again.
  • Focus more on some of the other benefits of exercise. Although exercise can certainly be part of a weight-management strategy, exercise does so much more for you!  Exercise is also an effective way of managing stress and improving your mood.
  • Exercise in a group or with a friend. This may increase the enjoyment you get from the activity.

    Exercise with a friend!

  • Gradually increase the challenge so that you stay interested. If your activity is walking, gradually add some distance, walk a little bit faster, or try walking on different kinds of terrain (e.g. if you normally walk on city streets, try trail-walking for a change).
  • Find your inner child! Little kids exercise all day long, but they don’t call it exercise – they call it play! Can you incorporate a bit more fun, natural exercise into your daily life? Maybe do some dancing to high-energy music, or run around the park with your children.  If you are somewhere with a lot of snow like I am right now, get outside and make some snow angels or build a snow fort!

Above all else, remember to have fun! If you focus on developing intrinsic motivations to exercise, you are more likely to stick with the activity over the long run.

Happy Snowy New Year!

By Dr. Jennifer Boyd, C. Psych.