Finding the Motivation to Exercise

Motivation for Exercise

There are a lot of ingredients that go into creating a consistent exercise program—having goals, being prepared, being disciplined, and staying committed. But one of the most important, and sometimes most elusive, is motivation.

We often wait for the motivation to exercise, thinking one day we'll wake up and it'll be there. What's true for many of us, however, is that the motivation to work out is the strongest in the planning phase, since most of us are working for some future goal, like losing weight.

Think about it. When you're planning a future workout, you're in a totally different head space. You're probably relaxed, rested, and feeling good, maybe visualizing yourself going through a workout and being successful.  

But what happens when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m.? Or when you're driving home after a long day of work? That motivation is nowhere to be found.

Motivation is a tricky business, but understanding just what it is and how to use it to your advantage can help you harness its power.


What Is Motivation?

Motivation can be defined in very simple terms: what drives us to maintain or achieve goals. One might even say it is a form of desire. When you look at it that way, things change a bit, at least for many of us. Yes, you should exercise, you need to exercise, you want to want to exercise, but do you have a desire for exercise? For some people, maybe—they like how it feels to exercise.

But, for many of us, exercise is usually thought of as having one end goal—helping you to lose weight, look better, get strong, feel better, be healthy, stave off diabetes, etc.

That's a little different than wanting to exercise, which is why so many of us run into that brick wall.

We set goals, we make plans, maybe we even stick with those plans for a while. But then we may find that motivation fading and wonder what we're doing wrong.  

It's not that you're doing something wrong, it may just be you haven't figured out what motivates you.

Where Does Motivation Come From?

It's important to know where your motivation comes from and that there are a couple of different types of motivation. There are external things that motivate you and then there are internal desires that drive you.

Extrinsic Motivation

This kind of motivation is what we usually rely on when it comes to exercise. It's kind of like the carrot and the stick. You try to lure yourself into a workout with the carrot ("You'll lose weight!") or by hitting yourself with an invisible stick ("You'll get fat if you don't work out!"). Other external motivators include:

  • looking good in a bathing suit
  • losing weight for a high school reunion
  • getting flat abs
  • wanting to fit into old jeans
  • trying to get back to the weight you were in college
  • wanting to look good for your spouse or loved one

When you have that kind of motivation, you're not necessarily exercising because you like it. You're doing it because it's going to give you what you want at some vague future time.

That's not always a bad thing if it works. In fact, this kind of motivation is great for those moments when you think about skipping your workout and then remember your goal, whatever that may be.

The trouble is: What if it doesn't give you what you want or you don't know how long it's going to take? What if you can't do the amount of exercise required to get that bathing suit body? Or what happens if you just don't have the genetics to get flat abs?

That's often when motivation slides and you start to think: Why even bother if none of this is working?

Intrinsic Motivation

Now there's another type of motivation, intrinsic motivation, that comes from within. This is something important to you, not some future goal, but something you can get right now. Some examples of intrinsic motivation include:

  • exercising because it feels good
  • loving that runner's high feeling
  • working out because it relieves stress
  • feeling good when your body gets stronger and you can do more than you did before
  • enjoying exercise because it gives you time to think or zone out

You can see the difference here. External motivators can be fleeting, but internal motivators tend to have more staying power.

Many studies have shown this, including one study published in Medicine in Science and Sports and Exercise. This study investigated the different predictors of weight control in 136 participants. They found that those who focused on internal motivators like self-efficacy, interest in what they were doing, and enjoyment of exercise had the most success at long-term weight management.

Both of these types of motivation are important for keeping you going. Intrinsic motivation is what drives you, while extrinsic motivation works as kind of a support to what motivates you from within. You can tap into both of these whenever you're faced with the choice of whether to work out or go back to sleep.

Why Aren't We Motivated to Exercise?

There are lots of reasons we may not be as motivated to exercise as we used to be. Some of these things are actually barriers or obstacles we have to overcome, such as:

  • Sedentary Jobs and Lifestyles- Most of us spend much of our day on the computer and in the car, meaning less walking and more sitting. The more we sit, the more we get used to sitting, and the harder it is to get the body moving.
  • Being Overweight - If you're overweight, it's so much harder to exercise. You might have physical issues like joint pain or injuries, and it's hard to move a larger body, making exercise more intimidating and uncomfortable.
  • Busy Lifestyles- We are busier than ever and that becomes a great excuse to skip exercise. 
  • Stress - While exercise is supposed to reduce stress, exercise is also a kind of stress on the body. If you feel stressed out, working out may be the last thing you want to do, even though it's probably the best thing for you.
  • Access to Workout Facilities - If you don't have a gym or community center nearby, that may influence whether you workout on a regular basis. 
  • Neighborhood Safety - If you have safe places to walk, run, or cycle, you're much more likely to do so, especially if you see other people doing the same thing. 

The world we live in doesn't make it easy to exercise and, yes, we can sometimes blame our environment for making it harder and harder to workout.  

On the other hand, there are more ways to exercise than ever before. We have fitness apps and on-demand workout websites like the Daily Burn, FitnessGlo and even free workouts on YouTube. We have exergames, health clubs, specialty gyms, personal trainers—the list goes on.  

You don't necessarily need a gym or even any equipment. There are plenty of ways to work out at home or do workouts that require no equipment.

With this in mind, you'll see that there are other things going on that keep us from exercising. Internal barriers we set up without even realizing it.

  • Fear - Exercise can be scary, especially if you haven't done it in a while or you're trying something you've never done before. Sometimes it seems easier to skip the whole thing than end up hurting yourself or looking like an idiot.
  • Confusion - How much exercise do you need and how do you fit it all in? Sometimes we don't know where to start and we get paralyzed, deciding to do nothing.
  • Pain and Suffering - Exercise is physical exertion and, as such, it can cause some discomfort. For those of us not used to that, it can feel more like pain and suffering, another reason we may skip exercise.
  • Boredom - There are plenty of boring exercises out there and, too often, that's all we've been exposed to. And, sometimes, exercise is boring, just like everything else in life.
  • Frustration - Many people work out to lose weight, only to realize progress is very, very slow. That's another reason many of us quit before we ever really see any progress.
  • You Hate Exercise - If you hate exercise, there's a pretty good chance you're doing it wrong. Try throwing your plan out the window and start from scratch.  What really feels good? Walking? Stretching? Start there and build a program around that. You can always add more stuff later.

How to Get Motivated to Exercise

There's a long list of things that may stand in the way of exercise, but it doesn't have to be that way.

The only way to really motivate yourself to exercise is to start with one very important step: Don't wait for it.  

Motivation is never just going to happen. You have to make it happen. Yes, it sounds like a cheesy sports commercial, but real motivation comes from you and, the good news is, you have a variety of resources to choose from.

What's funny about motivation is that it can change every day. Maybe yesterday you were motivated to exercise simply because it's what you normally do first thing in the morning. The next day, that doesn't work because you're feeling tired. Then what? You may have to dig deeper to find a reason to get out of bed. Maybe you need a reward, as in, "If I do my workout this morning, I can spend a half hour playing a silly iPad game tonight."

Whatever it is, you may need to go through a variety of options before you find that one that gets you moving.

And beyond that, you have to make some changes to make motivation work for you. If there are too many obstacles and you'll just quit.

Setting Up an Environment that Motivates You

  • Make it easy to exercise - Have everything you need ready for every workout. Know the workout you'll do, how long it will take, what you need to do it and get it all together so when workout time comes, you don't have to hunt for that other shoe or your heart rate monitor.
  • Find something you like - Do you have to love it? No. But you should find something good about it. Forget about what you think you should do and do something you like or at least something you can tolerate. Everything feels hard at first, but it gets easier if you keep going. Walking is always an excellent place to start.
  • Get good at something - One of the internal motivators is self-efficacy. It feels good to master something, so why not master spinning or aerobics or pushups? When you focus on doing something well, you forget about the fact that you're exercising.
  • Find some support - Get a workout buddy if you can or just someone you can text with every day. Beyond that, get your family behind you so you can have your workout time without having to worry about everyone else.
  • Experiment - The first few things you try may not work and that's totally normal. Don't keep trying things that you don't like or that don't work. Give yourself permission to experiment until you get to know yourself a little better. 
  • Be flexible - Every day is different and there are days when motivation is hard to come by. This is a good time to think about what's going on - Why aren't you motivated? Maybe you're extra tired or maybe your workout seems boring. Maybe you need more sleep or maybe you need to ditch your plans and just go for a walk. Listen to yourself and you'll find the motivation you need.
  • Reward yourself - Reward yourself for every workout you do, no matter how small. Time to listen to music or read a book. Time to soak in a hot tub or browsing a bookstore. Every month, plan bigger rewards like a massage or a night out. Knowing you get a treat is a great motivator.
  • Get some help - Don't know what you're doing? Hire a personal trainer or search through some of Verywell's database of workouts and articles for guidance.
  • Just keep going - There's usually a time, maybe a few weeks after you start working out when motivation flags and you want to quit. This is the moment you need to keep going because one of the ingredients for consistent exercise is momentum. Once you get that going, it gets easier to work out and you're not fighting yourself as much. A big part of being an exerciser is simply getting in the habit of exercising every day.

Motivation is just one part of becoming an exerciser and it's probably the one thing we struggle with when we're just getting started.

Rather than letting that motivation fade away, think about what it is you really want for yourself beyond weight loss and looking good. People who exercise look for reasons to do it because they know it makes life better. Think about what would me your life better and you'll find the motivation to keep moving.


Teixeira PJ, Going SB, Houtkooper LB, et al. Exercise Motivation, Eating, and Body Image Variables as Predictors of Weight Control. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2006;38(1):179-188. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000180906.10445.8d.

Trost SG, Owen N, Bauman AE, Sallis JF, Brown W. Correlates of adults??? participation in physical activity: review and update. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2002;34(12):1996-2001. doi:10.1097/00005768-200212000-00020.

More from Verywell in Motivation

Learn more about Exercise