People have different motivations as to why they decide to pursue fitness or join an exercise program. The issue of fitness motivation has been a subject of many studies including one that was done at the University of Bath in England. In the study, researchers asked half of the group of 281 male and female undergraduate students to imagine a physically unattractive version of themselves.
The researchers then asked the same group to either imagine a situation in which they failed to continue an exercise routine or one in which they successfully completed the routine. The results of the study were that those who had been asked to think about a failed exercise routine were motivated to keep working out because they were afraid of looking unattractive. On the other hand, the participants who were asked to imagine they were succeeding in getting in shape were less motivated to continue because they did not have the fear of looking unattractive.
Essentially, the study indicates that the fear of gaining weight or weight loss may be the major reason that motivates people to fitness.
The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
The desire for fitness stems from either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. People who enjoy the physical experience of exercise are intrinsically motivated. Such a person enjoys the post-workout high, the experience of moving to a beat or just the feeling of the muscles being pumped. It is the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment from lifting heavier weights or running faster that intrinsically motivates fitness. The idea of gaining proficiency in a sport is also a motivating factor.
Intrinsic motivation also includes the mental aspects of working out. Is it the reduced stress levels, decreased depression, improved concentration or a boost of confidence? All these mental aspects of fitness stem from intrinsic motivation.
Now extrinsic motivation for exercise is much more complex. Such motivation is based on an imaginary better life if one can only achieve weight loss or get into some imagined ‘perfect’ body shape. For example, a man may think that he will be more eligible for a promotion if he becomes as fit as a colleague that competes in the corporate races. On the other hand, a woman may feel that she will be more appealing and attractive if she loses weight.
Extrinsic motivation gets more complicated when a person joins a workout plan with the help of an instructor or a personal trainer who then become the object of the person’s extrinsic motivation. As such, a person will only work out and keep fit in order to impress the instructor.
The reasons for extrinsic motivation are like:
· The desire for weight loss: as mentioned, people often believe that weight loss will somehow help them achieve a certain body shape and become more acceptable to society. The fear to be seen as unattractive and rejected because of the extra calories is motivation enough
· Health reasons: sometimes people will find themselves in a compromise situation where they have to something about their health if they want to live longer. After a visit to the doctor, a person may be told that they need to exercise and get fit as part of living a healthy lifestyle. For such a person, fitness was coaxed and given as the alternative to longevity. And who doesn’t want to live longer?
· Social media pressure: in today’s society, we are bombarded by images all over social media platforms of people who are fit. People get to show off their muscles and abs. Such people have more followers and more likes. Without a doubt, this can motivate someone to fitness. Just because this celebrity looks in a certain way, people will try to emulate that in order to get the followers and get the attention. The desire to be noticed on social media is an extrinsic motivation of fitness.
· Passive comments: it is common to hear people make passive comments about a person’s weight, their fitness and anything regarding their appearance. Some of these comments or “concerns” come from family and friends. These can motivate a person to fitness because the person would want to prove a point. Fitness becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Unfortunately, extrinsic motivation is rarely a sustaining method of maintain exercise adherence. The idea of weight loss and more Instagram likes will definitely work at the beginning but with time, the motivation begins to wear off. When a person realizes that getting in shape did not create a dramatic change in his or her situation, he or she might abandon her workout. If they continue in that trajectory then they will find themselves gaining weight and the process of weight loss and fitness begins again. The cycle goes on and on.
This is not to say that weight loss should not motivate a person to fitness. The real question is the reason for the weight loss in the first place. For the people who are intrinsically motivated to pursue fitness, weight loss comes as a byproduct of what they love to do. They don’t actively pursue weight loss, they just love the physicality of fitness and eventually end up losing weight. That is why individuals who are intrinsically motivated will hardly ever give up on their workout or their fitness plans because their motivation was never about fitting to certain defined standards of attractiveness. So weight loss can be a reason for fitness but if it is only about pleasing people then the motivation will quickly wane off.
Fitness is something worth pursuing not just for the physical benefits that it has on the body but for its mental benefits as well. Your motivation for fitness matters a lot because it will determine the duration of your fitness journey. If you want your fitness journey to be long term, then you should be intrinsically motivated. At first, it may start out as extrinsic motivation but with time, your motivation should evolve into intrinsic motivation for the long haul.