How To Change Your Motivation For Exercise

I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had too. We’ve lived in this house for more than 20 years. It’s where we raised six children. Five have left and the last one would soon graduate.

It was never our intention to live here forever. We don’t love the house and we don’t love the area, but it suited our needs while the kids were all here. It’s also what we could afford. Our children have good memories of growing up and we are grateful. But, now it’s time to prepare for the next season.

Before we can realistically consider moving there’s a lot that needs to be done to the house. There’s a lot of deferred maintenance…things I didn’t feel like spending money on, or couldn’t afford to. There are also a bunch of house projects that I did over the many years that I need to circle back on. My standard was always “good enough” which will not be good enough to sell.

And, then there’s two decades of accumulated clutter. Most of it ended up in the back part of the basement. And, this is where I stood on a cold and gray Saturday morning. Staring at all the work I had in front of me.

And, I simply did not want to do it.

Motivation is a funny thing. Experts have studied this for a long time. I’m not an expert, and I won’t pretend to be. But, I have observed myself, and others, regarding how motivation works. At least for me, it’s a pretty simple formula.

When the perceived value is greater than the perceived effort I’m motivated to action. But, when the perceived value is less than the perceived effort I’m not motivated.

To be clear…I don’t think through every decision and action using this matrix. It simply happens and the result is whether I feel like doing something or not. Let me explain using two examples.

BRUSHING MY TEETH

I brush my teeth twice a day. I don’t even think about. But, if I did (and clearly I am now) this is what that looks like. The perceived value of brushing my teeth is high. I don’t want cavities I don’t want my teeth covered with that icky stuff that the dentist has to scrape off, and I don’t want my teeth falling out when I’m old. There’s a lot of value there!

On the other side of the equation, the perceived effort is pretty low. It takes me a couple minutes a day. It doesn’t require much strength or exertion. I also get a new toothbrush every time I visit the dentist so I don’t have to go to the store and spend money.

I’m motivated to brush my teeth twice a day without really thinking about it.

FLOSSING MY TEETH

I’m embarrassed to admit I just started flossing a few years ago. That also makes this a great example of how perceived value and perceived effort impact my motivation.

While I knew that I was “supposed to floss” the perceived value was pretty low. I was brushing my teeth, not going to the dentist, and NOT getting cavities. I just don’t get them. Or, more accurately, I don’t get many cavities. I’ve had only a handful during my entire life. I didn’t feel like flossing was really going to matter.

The perceived effort of flossing, for me, was much higher than brushing. I didn’t like trying to get that little piece of string between my back teeth. It felt like I had to rip my lips to reach back that far. Sometimes the floss would get stuck between my teeth and it felt like I was about to break a tooth to get it out. And, it didn’t feel good against my gums.

The perceived value of flossing was far lower than the perceived effort, so I didn’t do it. Even though experts said I had too, I wasn’t motivated.

That all changed when the dentist tested my gums and told me I was in danger of gum disease if I didn’t floss. In ten-minutes the perceived value of flossing suddenly shot way above the perceived effort. I’ve been flossing every day since then.

FITNESS

recent survey asked 2,000 people what kept them from regular exercise. The result was a list of the most popular excuses we use to keep us from pursuing fitness. Last week we looked at Excuse #5 which is the gym is too far away. You can read that here.

This week Excuse #4:

I don’t have the motivation.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to run this through my “motivation filter” and then offer a solution if you struggle with fitness motivation.

PERCEIVED VALUE OF FITNESS

Just like it didn’t matter to me what the experts said about flossing, I also didn’t care what they said about exercise. I went decades without sustainable fitness motivation. I think for most of us the value of fitness is some combination of these three things:

  1. I want to look better
  2. I want to feel better
  3. I want to live better

Each of us is going to have a different combination of how we value, or don’t value, each of these three.

During the many years I was not pursuing fitness, I was fine with how I looked, I felt good, and I was able to do the things I enjoyed doing. The perceived value of exercise was pretty low for me.

PERCEIVED EFFORT OF FITNESS

If fitness required no effort I suspect we would all have it. But, sadly, fitness requires more effort than watching Netflix. Here are three significant ways that fitness activity feels like a lot of effort:

  1. It doesn’t feel good and it’s not fun
  2. It’s a hassle (you have to go to the gym, change your clothes, take a shower, learn new exercise, etc…)
  3. It takes a long time before you see and feel any results

And, just like we all perceive the value of fitness differently, we also perceive the effort differently and uniquely. For me, the hassle was the deal breaker for all those years. Since I didn’t perceive much added value, the hassle of finding and maintaining a regular fitness program just wasn’t worth it.

Until it was.

WHAT CHANGED

Age has a way of increasing the perceived value of fitness. As I was approaching 50 I didn’t feel as good as I used to. I couldn’t do all the things I used to without a greater effort. And, I was gaining weight around my middle. I didn’t like the way things were trending and at the speed they were changing. That’s when the perceived value of fitness began to climb higher than the perceived effort and I felt motivated.

But, it doesn’t happen this way for everybody. Again, because we are so unique it’s impossible to apply the same formula to everyone. There are many people much younger than 50 who actively pursue fitness. Their perceived value is much higher than their perceived effort.

Conversely, there are many folks over 50 who struggle with fitness motivation. Part of that is because the effort increases as we age. I also think part of that, for some, is the attitude, “Why bother?” We know people who are fit that die young and people who are not fit and live a long time.

We all know people in both categories. There are no guarantees either way. But, what do you do when you want to pursue fitness, but can’t seem to sustain the motivation to make it happen?

I think there’s actually an answer to that.

INCREASE THE PERCEIVED VALUE OF EXERCISE

One solution is to raise how much we value fitness. But, this is not easy because it requires something to change. In my case, the way I felt and looked was changing and that was enough to increase the perceived value of fitness.

For some people, a health crisis is the change agent. When the doctor lays out the short and long term consequences of physical inactivity it can get your attention. I know I didn’t value flossing until I was told about the bad things that would be happening unless I started.

For others, the change is an upcoming event. I know someone who lost a lot of weight before his daughter’s wedding. I know when my daughter got married I became very aware of the pictures that would live for a long time. That can increase the perceived value of fitness, even if it’s only for a season.

For many years I tried to increase the perceived value of fitness without a change. This usually happened around January 1 and I was always successful. For about a week. I could create enough emotional excitement with a new fitness goal that my perceived value was way higher than the perceived effort.

But, of course that emotion faded and with it went the perceived value.

Have you ever felt this way? You know “exercise” is important, but you just can’t raise the perceived value permanently above the perceived effort. In other words, your motivation doesn’t last. I know how that feels. I was feeling it that Saturday morning staring at all the crap I had to get out of my basement.

LOWER THE PERCEIVED EFFORT OF EXERCISE

If it feels nearly impossible to raise the perceived value of fitness, then we need to lower the perceived effort.

I stood in my basement feeling overwhelmed by everything I had to do. The perceived effort was way higher than the perceived value…even knowing it all had to be done for us to eventually move. All I could do was lower the effort.

I decided I would only do a tiny section at a time. No more than an hour to get rid of stuff on one small shelf. Once that was done, I was done. A week later, I did another shelf, then I was done. I did this for months and then something cool happened.

MOMENTUM

As I slowly, bit by bit, got rid of the clutter it gradually felt less overwhelming. And, as that happened the perceived effort got a little easier so I did even more. That momentum continued to grow and a lot more is getting done.

The interesting thing is the perceived value of doing all this never really grew, but the perceived effort dropped enough to give me some motivation to act.

The same thing can happen with exercise.

If you can drop the perceived effort you will eventually create some fitness momentum to will continue to grow eventually leading to fitness transformation.

The key is finding a fitness activity you enjoy! That’s why walking is a great way to get started. Walking is fun! It’s also flexible, sustainable, and effective.

Did you know that a 30 minute walk every day at a moderate pace fulfills the CDC weekly recommendations for physical activity. You could walk for exercise every day for the rest of your life. You could also use walking to build some exercise momentum and try other activities in the future.

If you already enjoy walking that gives you a great head start towards finding the motivation for exercise that lasts. The next step is to add some intentionality to what you already enjoy!

WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY

If you struggle with exercise motivation, I want to recommend a 30 Day Fitness Challenge. Most fitness goals end in failure because they start way too big. Setting the right goal to get started is critical!

This free guide will help you do that. It also includes a contract you sign to keep your daily commitment. I know that sounds a little cheesy, but it can be just the motivation you need on a day where keeping your fitness commitment feels too hard.

Every day you reach your goal is a WIN. This guide also includes a a 30 Day Tracker to help you celebrate each of those wins. It’ll feel really good as you track these. But, more importantly it’ll help you build fitness momentum that will last.

You can get started today with The 30 Day Fitness Challenge.

It’s probably no surprise to learn that most people who set a fitness goal don’t finish. The first 30 days are the most critical!

If you don’t have a Fitbit I recommend the Fitbit Inspire HR. While it’s not cheap, it’s less than a few months at the gym. The Inspire HR also tracks your heart rate and sleep so you get an even wider picture of your fitness progress.

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(By the way…if you use the link above to but a Fitbit Inspire HR this blog will receive a small commission. It won’t add anything to what you pay, but letting you know is the right thing to do)

Lastly, this blog is designed to help you embrace walking as a fitness activity. It’s sustainable, flexible, effective, and fun. Every week I post new articles with stories and helpful suggestions.

If you click FOLLOW (below on your phone…to the right and above on your computer) you’ll receive an email with a link to each new blog post.

2 thoughts on “How To Change Your Motivation For Exercise

  • Thanks so much for your dedication to keeping others motivated! I can relate to your blog posts in so many ways! It is very hot in Southern Indiana this morning, but I went out early and got 8,000 steps in before the temps reached 90. I will complete my goal later this evening when it cools down a bit. I always feel so much better when I’m on track with my walking—-both physically and mentally! Have a blessed day!

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