Breaking Down The Barriers: Find Your Exercise Motivation!

From the lecture series: Physiology and Fitness

By Dean Hodgkin, B.ScUniversity of Portsmouth

Despite there being libraries full of research material that confirms that regular exercise brings a whole smorgasbord of benefits, statistics from the US Department of Health and Human Sciences reveal that around 25% of adults admit to doing no exercise at all. What is it that prevents people with low exercise motivation from taking a dose of medicine that is clearly good for them?

 young fitness woman trail runner running on sunrise seaside
(Image: lzf/Shutterstock)

Negative Perceptions

A UK study revealed that sedentary people hold very negative perceptions of exercise, feeling it is difficult, unpleasant, maybe even pointless. It was suggested that their experiences of physical education and sports participation at school led to a poor level of exercise motivation in their adult life. Sadly, when these people were asked to discuss exercise, they were happy to declare their goals but they also offered the difficulties they anticipated, effectively immediately putting up barriers to change.

This is a transcript from the video series Physiology and Fitness. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

To get some insights into why this is, let’s visit Jason Satterfield, Professor of Clinical Medicine and Director of Behavioral Medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. I asked Professor Satterfield what are some of the psychological barriers that prevent people from embracing a healthier lifestyle, and for some insights into how to overcome them. Here’s what he had to share.

Delayed Rewards

Satterfield: In general, we’re sort of wired to appreciate things that happen relatively soon rather than relatively late. For something like exercise, that punishment comes upfront and the reward isn’t until many months—maybe even many years—down the road. It’s almost as if the reward structure needs to be reversed so that you get that reward upfront so that it reinforces that behavior and you want to do it again.

 Student looking at wristwatch during studying. Too busy to exercise
Life’s complexities can easilly get in the way of a regular exercise routine. (Image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

The next thing that comes to mind is that we oftentimes, as medical providers, forget about the complexities of life. We’ll give a patient what we think is an attainable goal without realizing the amount of work stress, the amount of family stress, that there are actually 3 or 4 other behavioral changes that they’re trying to do at exactly the same time. We want to know not just is it the patient’s goals, but are they attainable goals? Are there immediate rewards? Does it fit into their life right now? Is this exercise motivation high enough priority that they’ll be able to engage and be able to succeed?

There are a lot of stories and there are a lot of suggestions. The controlled studies that have been done using incentives typically use a monetary incentive. Each time a person goes to the gym, each time they put in a certain number of minutes on a treadmill, they will get a monetary reward—either immediately, or it’s put in a bank so they can see that amount that’s growing and growing and growing. In fact, they’ve used that for a lot of preventive health behaviors; do you get your vaccinations? Do you get your mammograms? Do you get your colonoscopies? Essentially, paying people to do things that are good for them works; those incentives actually do work, as funny as that might feel.

Learn more about how to overcome the barriers to exercise

Fact: Gyms Are Intimidating For Newbies!

Fitness instructor exercising with his client at the gym
A good gym instructor will help lower the barrier of gym intimidation. (Image: Solis Images/Shutterstock)

Hodgkin: The idea of joining a gym presents specific concerns and worries for some people, but these can be listed and countered, as follows:

  • Complicated exercises. You could easily request an instructor to design a workout using the most basic movements to start with. Ensure you work slowly, allowing you to master technique and

reducing the risk of injury to the muscles, joints, and connective tissues.

  • Unusual activities. A common sense approach is to stick with what you know. At the start, it makes sense to do what you’re comfortable with, as there will be plenty of time to get a little more adventurous later.
  • Doing too much too soon. A good instructor should guide you on this point but you can help by taking responsibility for yourself, ensuring you begin at a comfortable speed, a comfortable resistance, and also allow for gradual progression. This progression could be in the number of visits, the duration of your workout, the intensity of the exercise you’re actually doing.
  • Learning new equipment. Most cardio stations include a quick-start option, and the instructors are there to help you, so if you forget what you were shown in your first introduction, don’t be afraid to ask them. Being unable to monitor pulse can sometimes be trick, as this is required often for some workouts at the right intensity. This isn’t so easy when you’re moving on the cardio machines, so offer an alternative method of judging your workout.
  • Studies have shown us that not just regular exercise, but even a single session can lead to improved feelings of wellbeing. We’re talking here about improved self-esteem, increased productivity at work, enhanced self-image, better confidence. Don’t we all want that?

    Learn more about protecting yourself from injury

    The Body’s Natural Chemical Rewards

    Satterfield: We know if a person engages in regular aerobic activity, there are 2 chemicals that are released that help us to understand why their cognitive function improves, and also why their mood improves in the case of depression. Of the 2 chemicals we’re talking about, the first is BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factors—essentially fertilizers for our neurons that help them to grow. They grow new branches; they grow new interconnections improving cognitive functioning.

    The second is maybe on a little more sort of practical and obvious level. As we become more physically fit, as we have more cardiorespiratory fitness, our circulation improves. When your circulation improves, more energy, more oxygen can move to the brain. The second chemical that’s released is something called VEGF, which is vasoendothelial growth factor—fertilizer for arteries and veins. It just helps us to grow new vessels that are going to carry that blood supply to our brain. If you’re taking better care of your brain, you’re growing new neurons, you’re feeding it better with oxygen and nutrients, you’re going to have better cognitive function; you’re going to have a better mood.

    Learn more about the primary cardiovascular workouts

    A Bed-Time Myth

    Hodgkin: I often hear that people work late, and then they don’t want to exercise, because they’ve been told that it’s bad to exercise before bed. But that’s their only time, so then they’re stuck in the rut of not exercising. But is this even true? I asked one of America’s experts in sleep, Craig Heller, Professor of Biology and Human Biology at Stanford University, if it’s a myth or a fact that you shouldn’t exercise before sleeping. Here’s what he had to say.

    Image of woman suffering from insomnia
    It is a myth that physical activity before bed will keep us awake at night. (Image:

    Heller: You can definitely exercise before going to bed and still have good sleep. There is a myth that’s associated with exercise before sleep. It’s not only a myth, it’s actually a bullet point in a brochure put out by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, that one of the pieces of advice for improving your sleep is avoid exercise within 3 hours of bedtime. It’s wrong because we know that mild exercise promotes a rise in temperature; the rise in temperature promotes good sleep.

    Where does the myth come from? The myth comes from thinking of intense exercise that involves emotionality, such as competitive sports. If you are on an ice hockey team and you have your rink time at 11 pm and you have a terribly aggressive game, you’re not going to have good sleep following that, but it’s not because of the exercise, per se: It’s because it involved activation of your sympathetic nervous system, all of the emotionality and the fight-or-flight responses that are the result of a competitive sport.

    Exercise In Your Golden Years

     Senior Mountain biking
    Look upon retirement as an opportunity become more active instead of less (Image: riopatuca/Shutterstock)

    What about your retirement years? Is this the time to slow down? No! Look upon retirement as an opportunity become more active instead of less. This is a great time of life to garden, take the dog on longer walks, to play with the grandchildren. Learn a new skill that fans the flame of your exercise motivation — like dancing or swimming. You’re never too old to learn to swim! Now that you have the time, you could make regular physical activity a part of every day. Go for a walk every morning or every evening before dinner. Treat yourself to an exercise bike and every day while you’re reading your favorite book or magazine.

    They say there’s no time like the present. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and exercise!

    Common Questions About Exercise Motivation

    Q: How do you motivate yourself to exercise?

    Some tips for motivating yourself to exercise include changing into workout clothes before you actually feel ready, exercising at a set time every day so that you establish a routine, finding a workout you enjoy, and starting slow and then gradually increasing the intensity of your workout.

    Q: What is exercise motivation?

    Exercise motivation refers to the psychological factors that lead us to take action when it comes to establishing an exercise routine.

    Q: How can I motivate myself to workout after work?

    To motivate yourself to exercise after work, you should find a gym that’s on your route home from work, come to work prepared with a change of clothes for your workout, and remind yourself how invigorated you will feel after your workout.

    Q: How do I force myself to go to the gym?

    To ensure that you continue going to the gym consistently, even when you don’t feel like it, you should go with a friend (increases accountability), sign up for a group class, and keep your “why” (the reason you are exercising) written down in a spot where you will see it everyday. Also, not all gyms are alike so pick a gym with a fun ambiance, good music, and a friendly staff so that you look forward to going.

    This article was updated on 7/23/2019

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