Struggling to find the motivation to work out is a common experience — even for seasoned athletes. While many assume feeling motivated is necessary to get started with and maintain a fitness routine, the truth is, most people who exercise regularly don’t feel motivated to work out every single day. The misconception that we need to feel motivated to work out is part of what leads people to give up on their routines before they’ve even gotten started.
“It’s absolutely normal to not feel motivated all the time,” says Kathryn Alexander, a clinical exercise physiologist. Just as we feel happy some days and sad others, it’s normal to feel motivated some days and apathetic others, she adds.
If you struggle with motivation, here’s some good news: You don’t need to feel motivated every time you work out. In fact, you might be more successful if you challenge your notions about what motivation really is and how much of it you truly need, experts say.
Motivation doesn’t need to mean springing out of bed at 6 a.m. with a burning desire to go for a 5-mile run, points out Chloe Greenbaum, PhD, a clinical psychologist. In fact, most people never experience this type of motivation when it comes to working out — despite what we see on social media.
“It’s very easy to look at people on social media who are successful, energetic and happy, and think they just wake up motivated and passionate,” Alexander says. “The reality is, we don’t know them, and we don’t see their life behind the scenes.”
While we may not need the “hop-out-of-bed-at-6-am” type of motivation to succeed, we do need to stoke one specific type of motivation to be consistent with a workout routine for the long haul. Researchers call this intrinsic motivation, and we strengthen it when we enjoy and feel satisfied by the activities we’re doing.
“The internal drive is critical for keeping us going in the long run, because external rewards of fitness are fleeting,” explains Alan Chu, PhD, director of the Motivation and Performance Research Lab and chair of the Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology master’s program at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. “We can’t lose weight, gain muscle, run faster or get stronger forever, even though those are good goals to set.” Eventually, you’ll have to work out just a reason other than changing your appearance or boosting your performance.
People sometimes expect fitness motivation means they’ll always be having fun, but that’s not necessarily the case. “For example, athletes do not always have fun at practices, but indeed may feel exhausted or overwhelmed at times,” Chu says. “The best of the best are always able to internalize the importance and the value of pushing themselves to the limit and eventually get the enjoyment from improving themselves and winning.”
We typically think of motivation as the driving force behind taking action, like exercising. But this relationship is actually a two-way street. In some situations, taking action (for example, working out) may be the very thing that spurs and strengthens motivation, helping us continue with that action over time.
“If an action, such as exercise, leads to positive outcomes, such as increased energy or strength, those positive outcomes reinforce the action and make further action more likely,” Greenbaum notes.
The reason this works, according to Chu, is based on something called self-determination theory, which proposes we all have three main psychological needs to satisfy to feel motivated: autonomy (a sense of control), competence (a sense of effectiveness) and relatedness (a sense of connection).
“When motivation is lacking, and the person can still take action, that usually helps generate more motivation because that person should gain some autonomy and competence by taking action,” he says. The caveat, though, is that the action needs to be taken because we truly want to achieve something for ourselves rather than because we’re feeling external pressure, such as being told by a significant other to lose weight.
“Motivation is like a muscle; we need to work on it to get stronger,” Chu says. “We need to be intentional about adding autonomy, competence and relatedness to our daily routine to maintain our fitness and healthy lifestyle.” Here’s how to do just that.
“Practicing mindfulness and meditation also helps us be more aware of the fact that we can make a conscious choice to exercise (maybe with less intensity or time), even if we don’t feel like it,” Chu notes.
Remember what you’re feeling is normal. “Some days you’ll be more motivated than others. Some days will feel better than others. This is all normal!” Alexander emphasizes. “You are not a robot who has the same feelings and does the same actions consistently every single day.”
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.