How to Stay Motivated to Exercise


Written by: Maureen Kemeny

April 4, 2022


Such a powerful contributor to health. It gets us out of bed an hour early to exercise. It is the reason we put in tireless work to keep ourselves and our loved ones happy and healthy. It is the big ‘why’ behind all of our actions and behaviors. Yet it can seem, at times, impossible to channel motivation and keep it going long-term.

At times, motivation is easy to come by but just as quickly fades into avoidance or procrastination. Other times, it is simply too hard to even start. It’s easier to let the Netflix series you’re watching automatically play the next episode than to get up off the couch and get your butt to the gym. It’s easier to order take-out than to buy and prepare a nutritious meal for you and your family.

At this point you may be asking, “Sure, but how?! How can I even get motivated?”

how to stay motivated

Before we practice harnessing motivation, let’s back up a bit to really understand motivation at its core. In essence, it is the response to “why”. Why do you wake up an hour early to go to the gym? Why do you spend some of your very limited time on this earth to have dinner with your friends? Why are you trying to lose weight? Why are you trying to create a better work-life balance?

It comes down to your WHY.

There are two types of motivation: external and internal. If your big “why” is external and you haven’t done the work from within, then your motivation will be fleeting, at best.

It is essential to dig deep and find reasons that are super important to you, to your values and to your purpose here on earth.

We can look at some examples to better understand external versus internal motivation:

  1. Look at the amount of people who go to the gym in January versus February. People make a New Year’s resolution to lose those extra pounds. That’s great! So they sign up for a gym membership and decide to go 5 days a week starting right after the holidays. On the evening of January 1st they pack their gym bags and meal prep for the week. January 2nd arrives and they wake up early to squeeze in a gym workout before work. “This year will be different!”, they say. They blend up a nutritious smoothie and head off to the gym. They have a great workout at the gym. At lunch they eat a healthy salad with lean protein. “This is delicious!” they say. Their motivation level is high. Unfortunately, what inevitably happens to many of those gym-goers is after a week or two, they lose motivation. “This salad is delicious!” quickly becomes, “Maybe I’ll just get a pizza today.” Waking up ready to hit the gym quickly turns into snoozing the alarm or rationalizing why it’s OK to skip your workout today. By the time February rolls in, the gym is back to its pre-holiday crowd. Maybe next year…

group exercise class for women

Why were these people unable to keep going? They very likely had an external reason for their goal. Maybe society is telling them that they will be happier if they are thinner. Maybe the celebrities they read about go to the gym and follow the same diet they are trying. These reasons are given value by others, not by themselves. External reasons aren’t bad, but internal reasons are the fuel for long-term motivation.

What is your reason? If it’s for external reasons outside of you, like praise or recognition from others, then you’ll want to dig deeper and find a reason that is aligned with your own values.

  1. In an episode of Ozmosis, John (the host) and I talked about his motivation- his reason for running. He is an avid runner, but this year due to an injury he has been having trouble making running a priority and logging those miles. He is struggling with getting “back in the groove”.

We often base our future performance on our past performance, and John is no exception!

John felt a lack of confidence because he was comparing his physical state to that of last year. He viewed himself as unhealthy simply because a year ago he was, in his mind, healthier. He believed that the miles he ran was a direct measure of his worth as a coach. He was down on himself because he was running less and was connecting his running with his self worth as a human and as a coach. It’s almost impossible to be motivated to get up to run when you’re feeling this way.

This resulted in excuses, inaction and procrastination. Like with many of us, it turned into a vicious cycle that perpetuated itself.

How is John supposed to feel motivated while he’s feeling frustrated and unconfident? His motivation came in brief spurts then quickly died off. How we feel determines how we show up in our life. Think about the last time you felt sad. What actions did you take as a result? You may have gone to bed, or reached for a bag of chips, or turned on the T.V., or cried. Sustainable motivation is fueled by positive feelings. As humans, we are wired to move away from pain, whether it’s physical or emotional.

John needed to work on developing thoughts that lead to confidence and empowerment. From these thoughts, results will naturally follow. From strong internal reasons, motivation will spring forth.

Here is the podcast episode if you want to listen for yourself!

Now we get to the fun part! Here’s an exercise I want you to do. Carve out a good amount of time to really think about this. Putting 2 minutes of hard thinking into this exercise will not reveal many secrets to motivating yourself for the rest of your life (if it were that easy, you’d already be super motivated and wouldn’t be reading this!). Give yourself the time that you’d give to a loved one when they come to you with a problem. Also, silence distractions! Set your phone and computer notifications to ‘Do Not Disturb’. Ask those you life with to not interrupt you and go into a quiet room, if possible.

Ready? Here we go!

Imagine you’re 100 years old. You know you’re nearing the end of your life. You’re sitting in your rocking chair on a chilly autumn morning and reflecting on your life and the choices you have made.

What are the things you have done that would lead you to feel your life was well lived? In short, what was the purpose of your life? Really think about what has brought you fulfillment. Write this all down. Out of this, make a list of the 5 most important things that make you feel most content. What are the 5 vital events or choices that occurred in your life that lead you to undoubtedly say that you had a meaningful life? What are the major decisions or paths you took which allowed you to lead a life that was filled with purpose. How do you know your life was well lived?

It may be a difficult exercise for you at first, but over time and with practice it will become clear to you. Remember, you are not necessarily writing about things that actually happened or that have already happened. This mental exercise puts your imagination to work on what could be.

Throughout the years in which I’ve guided clients through this mental exercise, I have never had one say they wanted a bigger house out of life. Not one client wishes they had more cars in the driveway. Sure, that walk-in closet with racks of designer shoes and clothes would be nice, but it never makes that top 5 list. When you read or hear about stories of people actually on their death beds, they are not regretting a lack of material items. Instead, we might hear: “I wish I had forgiven my mother.” “I wish I had a better relationship with my children.” “I wish I took that risk in my career instead of staying in my safe and stable job that I only tolerated.” “I wish I wasn’t reliant on an oxygen tank and wheelchair.” “I wish I gave more to the world than what I took.”

Be honest with yourself about your feelings while doing this task. Check in with your body when you write something down.

What is your reason for making your goal?

discover life purpose

It’s important to consider your reason closely to understand what feeling is fueling your desire. In order to fuel long-term behavior, you want to elicit a positive feeling. For example, it will be hard to lose weight long-term if your reason is because you hate your body. When we feel shame, disgust and other negative feelings we aren’t motivated to be kind to ourselves nor behave in a way that supports our well-being.

Does your reason come from fear, or self-punishment or does it come from a desire to live your best life?

Next, log one of your normal days from the time you wake up until the time you sleep. Write down everything you did. Log what you ate for breakfast, what you drank, who you spent your day with, what you worked on, what you did during your free time, what you watched on TV, what content you read…

Be as detailed as possible and leave nothing out (not even those cookies you ate as a late-night snack)!

OK great, now comes the final step. Compare the log of your actual activities with the log of your fulfilled future. Do the choices and accomplishments match up? Look at what you actually did in a day and compare that to what you want out of life. Did you make time for the things that are important to you? If you want to be satisfied with your life it will require daily effort and practice.

Ultimately, you need to decide if you are willing to do what is required to leave this life with no regrets.

If you are, then take those 5 things you want out of life, and start incorporating them into your daily life now. Bit by bit.

To be- and stay- motivated, your daily life needs to support why you are here on this planet.

It’s OK if you aren’t there yet, because guess what? You aren’t 100 years old! You aren’t on your death bed! You’re one of the lucky ones. Be kind to yourself, yet determined, as you find your “why” to life.

It really will motivate you every day.

If you really get stuck and need some guidance, I’d be happy to help.

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