Human motivation is a dynamic and complex entity. We are barraged by a wide variety of internal and external factors that drive us to run towards exercise or run away from it. Early in my career I stumbled upon James Maddux’s journal article Habit, Health, and Happiness (1997). To a liberal arts guy, a writing that attempted to bring some philosophy to the science of exercise was quite appealing. A decade and a half later, the article still resonates with me and I would argue that science and society is starting to “get” Maddux’s ideas more and more.
In considering exercise motivation, Maddux simply put:
If the only reason for exercising, eating right, not smoking, not drinking, and so on is to improve ourselves, or to prepare ourselves for some future time, supposedly so we will be healthier and happier in the future and able to enjoy life in the future, then we are wasting our time.
The future payback of exercise is very real – physical, mental, and social benefits are well documented. Yet, the sub-text to these reasons for exercise is not terribly compelling to many people. Consider for a moment a common motivation for exercise and its unstated meaning:
“I run each day so that I may stay healthy.” Also hear: “So I can live long.” This works well if the Grimm Reaper, with sickle in hand, is chasing you down the street. Yet it is not so successful if death’s doorstep is a bit further away. Fortunately, the end of days is well in the future for most people. This reality makes striving for health a bit of a weak motivator. It is not within our headlights, so remains out of sight and un-motivating on a daily basis.
The long term plans and vague destinations for exercise aspirations can take many forms – “I’m getting in shape so I’m ready for the beach this summer,” “We have a wedding coming up and I want to look terrific,” “I need to get in better shape so our team can win next season,” etc. Yes the reward is terrific and meaningful once you get there, but having the destination in mind does not do much to motivate in the present.
We often neglect the motivation that lies right in front of us. In his article, Maddux grabs onto Eastern philosophies and suggests paying attention to each moment, embracing each step – being mindful. This can be a bit abstract, so an easy first step could be to remain non-judgmental while doing. Plainly put, save the analysis - the labeling of good or bad until the workout is completed. Go with the flow and determine the quality of the workout a while after all the sweat and self-imposed suffering has concluded. As the sneaker company says, “Just do it.” Analyze it later.
This leads to the reward that lies right in front of us…. good feelings and energy follow physical activity. There is no need to wait weeks until the scale cooperates. There is no need to trust that you have assured yourself one more day on this earth with each successful pull-up. The reward of good feelings is immediate and quite regular.
Your homework: After exercising take at least a few minutes to soak in the emotions and remember them. Do not let the hustle and bustle of life rob you of one of exercise's most wonderful rewards. In the midst of many exercise motives, put the good feelings prominently on your radar. Sure, this may drift away from the Zen-like thought of paying attention to each step as we take it, but it is a compelling reward that does not follow far behind your regular exercise.
Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos Sport Psychology Consulting and is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Boston University’s School of Education. He has a decade and a half of experiences working with professional through amateur athletes – of note: US Open competitors, NCAA champions, Olympians, Stanley Cup winners, and UFC martial artists. Beyond sports, over the past five years he has served as a corporate performance and wellness consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ahnaylor.