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What Motivates You to Stay Fit?
Finding your intrinsic motivation can help you stay consistent in your fitness journey.
As I walked out of the hospital, I felt numb. My middle school science teacher, who worked with my dad, came out at the same time, having just visited him. She could see I was shaken up and did her best to console me.
“Everything will be OK. Your dad will be OK.” Or something like that. It’s hard to remember exactly what she said after 21 years, but it was kind, and it made me feel a little bit better.
It was 2001, and I’d just finished the fall semester of my junior year of college. Immediately after finals, my mom had called me to let me know my dad had a stroke. A few days before, he’d walked into the living room, unable to speak. At first, she didn’t know what was wrong. She took him to the hospital, where he sat in the emergency room, waiting and waiting…
My dad wasn’t an unhealthy person. He ate pretty well and he exercised every day, in the form of brisk walking for a few miles. But he did have high blood pressure, which I watched him battle all his life. His blood pressure regimen included daily medication and blood pressure checks. Of course, high blood pressure is a major risk factor for strokes.
My dad went on to live another 17 years, before his second bout with cancer did him in. But after the stroke, he wasn’t ever the same. Even though his speech returned, he often forgot words or felt like he wasn’t quite as mentally sharp. Watching him go through the aftermath of the stroke had a big effect on me. As I moved through my 20s and felt my fitness slipping, I realized I wanted to do everything I could to reduce my risk for a stroke or a heart attack.
This all crystalized in my early 30s. My blood pressure slowly crept up—which is typical when you have a family history of high blood pressure. But I’d been working out fairly religiously since I was 29 1/2. One day during an annual physical, my family doctor told me something that made a big impact on my fitness psyche. He told me I’d already have been on blood pressure medication if it weren’t for my dedication to exercise.
Today, I am on blood pressure medication. I was able to stave it off until just before the pandemic. But still, the exercise helps. When I started the blood pressure medication, my doctor told me I was lucky: many people are on two blood pressure medications.
So I keep on riding my bike. I keep on running. I keep on lifting weights. It’s all for my health.
My legs continue pumping. I’m only halfway up this hill? I feel a burning in my chest. I have to back off my pedaling a little bit. Maybe I should shift my bike to the little ring? No, I stay in the same gear. I keep going. The hill is exacting a toll on my pace. But I…like it? Yes, I like this. This is fun. Just think how rewarding it will feel when I get to the top! That’s what I’m thinking about. The sense of accomplishment. And then I get there. I just propelled this beautifully designed, ingenious machine up this unforgiving grade. And it was worth it. I don’t just like this. I love it.
Now I’m lifting weights. I hit my third rep. My fourth…fifth. Wow, these dumbbells weigh 55 pounds. That’s 110 pounds total. And I’m pushing them up, no problem. I may be skinny, but I’m strong. That’s 10 reps. Maybe I need the 65s now. I’m getting stronger. I love this.
I’m running on the trail. There’s roots and rocks everywhere. I have to slow down to avoid falling. I’m basically doing a fast hike now. But the trail becomes smooth once more, and I’m running again. The trail’s going up the side of a ridge. I’m surrounded by trees filled with fall colors. Fall seems to happen in December in Texas now. I’m at the top of the hill, and I stop and look back. I’ll take a rest. This isn’t like a road run. I can rest on a trail run. And enjoy the view. My wife’s right behind me, and she’s enjoying the view, too. I’m looking out at the peaceful river. No one’s around except us. I love this.
I love cycling. I love lifting weights. And now I love trail running. I didn’t know I loved trail running until a few weeks ago, but I do. I think I’ll keep doing these things I love.
Recently, I’ve been contemplating why I’ve been pretty consistent in hitting my fitness goals for the past 12 years. At least, the ones that were realistic. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m bragging—I’m not. But I’m proud of the work I’ve put in across a variety of fitness activities, and I’ve been on a good run of fitness consistency since I turned 29 1/2.
And I realized, there are a couple of things deep down inside me motivating me to be consistent. I exercise because I want to stay healthy as I age, and I exercise because I enjoy the activity.
Why has this worked so well for me? I did a little research. As it turns out, it might be because my motivations are intrinsic. According to a 2012 scientific study:
…intrinsic goals (e.g., seeking affiliation, personal growth, or health) as those thought to be more closely related to the fulfillment of basic psychological needs, from extrinsic goals (e.g., seeking power and influence, wealth, or social recognition) that are thought to be associated with “substitute needs” which are neither universal nor truly essential to well-being and personal development…Within the domain of exercise and physical activity, extrinsic goals (e.g., when exercise is performed primarily to improve appearance) or intrinsic goals (e.g., to challenge oneself or to improve/preserve health and well-being) can clearly be distinguished.
According to the study, intrinsic motivation is “more predictive of long-term exercise adherence.” So if you look for motivation more closely connected to basic psychological needs, there’s a good chance you’ll do better with your fitness consistency over the long-term.
This isn’t to say that all extrinsic motivations are bad. On the most recent episode of the podcast, Jen and I talked about the concept of fitness friends. Some argue they are a powerful extrinsic motivator.
But what I’m suggesting is over the long term, to ensure you stay consistent in reaching your fitness goals, you should think more deeply about what motivates you. Whether it’s health, enjoyment or trying to enhance your mood, find your intrinsic fitness “why.” As I realized this week, that’s what’s kept me climbing up steep hills on my bike, pushing through final sets and reps in my strength routine and motivating me to run across rocky terrain.
What motivates you?