The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

You Must Own It ~ pt. 9

How does one build intrinsic/internal motivation?

That is a question people have been trying to figure out for years.  How do you motivate someone to not only take action, but take ownership over that action?

If you’ve read this whole series of posts, then you know that I agree with Self-Determination Theory, in that we start with motivation and it is the environment that can either add or detract from that motivation.

Therefore, Step 4 of 9 on the road to Ownership, Specific Extrinsic Motivation that reinforces and builds Intrinsic Motivation, is the step I believe helps individuals to find their own drive to take action once again.

How is this best accomplished?

In three ways:
1 – By having someone provide specific feedback about a movement or behavior.  This helps to increase your competency without undermining internal motivation.
2 – By allowing yourself to see beyond the basic benefits of exercise, such as losing weight.  This means to allow the simple enjoyment of moving and challenging your body to motivate you primarily.  By doing so, you increase the odds that you will see exercise as being a truly autonomous choice.
3 – By enlisting the aid of a workout partner.  This “partner” can be a friend, a trainer or group of people in a group exercise class.  The only thing that matters is that it increases the feeling of “relatedness” you have to those people and to the activity itself.

To feel autonomous with exercise, is to be free to choose not only to exercise or not, but also the mode of exercise.  For most people with extrinsic reasons for exercising (ie., lose weight), there comes a point, where they no longer feel autonomous in terms of exercise.

What typically occurs is that there will inevitably be a plateau on the road of body transformation.  When that plateau occurs, they start to question the whole point of exercising, not realizing that to exercise is to exert control over the life you desire and not the one you’ve been given.

They focus only on the results aspect of exercise and not the inherent enjoyment that moving brings to countless individuals.

Humans were made for movement, not for making excuses not to move.

In studies, relatedness has been shown to be  the strongest indicator of exercise adherence.  It seems that it’s the way we connect and relate to one another that makes anything more “bearable,” especially when you first start working out or hit a rut with your workouts.

Therefore, in order to continue to take ownership over your workouts, workout by yourself when appropriate AND with friends, when you have the chance to do so.   The key is to make working out, an enjoyable experience overall, without the need to rely on someone else to have to be there for you to exercise.

For those of you that think “exercise is torture,” which is what I hear so many people say, it really doesn’t have to be.  When you are first starting a workout routine, you really don’t have to beat yourself up at the gym.

An example is a study that showed that people naturally work out close to their lactate threshold.  What does that mean, you might be saying?

It simply means that when you’re working out by yourself, you will tend to push yourself to the point of exertion where you are getting a good workout, but where you aren’t over-extending yourself.

Therefore, if you’re only starting to work out, don’t follow someone else’s routine, especially if you don’t like the feeling you get from working out just yet.

Go at your own pace and by doing so, you will be increasing your body’s competency for how hard it can go.  It’s the consistency, that is most indicative of health and fitness, not necessarily the intensity (at least at the beginning).

The end result of being consistent is that you become attuned to your body.  The more attuned you become, the more you actually start to enjoy exercise.

What I want to stress is this:  When you have only external goals such as losing weight, fitting into a dress, etc, you tend to focus only on the work that you’re doing and the results that you’re getting.  You see the work as a MUST (therefore, losing autonomy) and a plateau of results as a sense of incompetency.  By focusing solely on those aspects, you are losing out on the inherent enjoyment of the exercise and the challenge of pushing your body to new limits.

Without noticing those inherent qualities of exercise, you never fully develop a close and kindred association of enjoyment from moving your body.

Now, I’m not saying if you’ve been sitting on your ass for years on end, that when you start to move again, that it’s necessarily going to be a pleasant experience for you.  What I am saying is that if you can move past those “introductory” months, you will see that exercise, in and of itself will be highly enjoyable.

So how should you get started?  By doing what you feel comfortable doing.  If you don’t know how to do anything in the gym, walk and read a book while doing that walking, preferably Starting Strength.  Start with what you know and expand your knowledge from there.  Don’t feel the “need” to do anything, at any given time.  The only people that “need” to do anything are people in sports.

For everyone else, exercise is simply about what’s in front of you, at that moment.  Start with where you’re at, with what you know, and move on from there.

As I’ve seen people drop in and out of the fitness center for years, the problem is always the same.  They want to lose weight (which is not associated with an autonomous decision) and don’t like the feeling of exercise.

Why don’t they like the feeling of exercise?  They feel that they have to push themselves hard, from the very beginning in order to lose weight, instead of building up a tolerance slowly.

They’ve been carrying around an extra 40 pounds for 5 years now, but all of a sudden, the weight NEEDS to be off by next month.  Despite telling them that if it takes them a year to take off the 40 pounds but it stays off forever, they would be in a better place,  they continue to think that more work at the beginning will be better.

All that typically leads to is burn out.  What happens, is they work hard for a month or two, lose 10 pounds, feel tired and beat-up from their workouts, which they incessantly say, “Sucks,” and wonder why they stop coming.

Working out is not a race.  It’s not a destination.  There is no finish line.  It’s a journey to be pursued, but never to be reached.  Sure you may get some extrinsic motivation, but that really has to be placed in a secondary position behind other more internal reasons.

To make your life your own, to know that you can control your life.  Those should be the internal and primary reasons for working out.

To know that you have the power to overcome obstacles and take control over your time.  That’s an internal reason.

To feel good about having the patience and fortitude to do what is best for your body and your future.  That’s an internal drive and those things are what fitness should be about.

The weight loss, the enhanced ability to play sports, the muscle gain and added “sex appeal” are all definitely nice and motivating, but they shouldn’t remain the primary aspect of working out.  They may get you started and keep you motivated during “rough patches” but they shouldn’t be pursued without at least a balance or shift to more internal reasons.  If and when you see those external benefits, then working out has an added bonus.  If they’re not there though, it’s those internal reasons that should keep you going primarily.

With that said, I still didn’t fully answer my question though – How does one build internal motivation?

The answer:  You don’t build it.  You free it.

It’s always been there.  Just stop stifling it with reasons that kill it.  The “external rewards” of exercise (weight loss, muscle gain, etc) can be good, if you already enjoy exercise.  They can push you to new heights and if you’re aware that despite those “rewards” you want to achieve them for internal reasons (to see what you are capable of, despite the outcome) then they can serve you.

If on the other hand, you don’t enjoy exercise, get rid of them.  Enjoy exercise at your own pace.  Find friends who aren’t going to constantly push you for those external rewards but instead, enjoy the time that you spend together in the gym (or wherever you work out).  Allow yourself the time to build up a tolerance for exercise.

Stick to one small exercise routine for a couple of months, so that you feel competent with the exercises.

Recognize the added energy, vitality and ownership of your life from exercise.  Focus on those internal reasons.

Allow yourself to be free from the tyranny of “Having to” lose weight, eat better or exercise, and coincidentally you allow yourself the freedom to enjoy those things without the associated worry.

Next week’s post will wrap-up this series that has taken me much longer to conclude than expected.

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