How Intrinsic Motivation Will Get You Fit

Exercising consistently is hard. The only way to succeed is if your desire to get fit is greater than your desire to stay in bed. That is where intrinsic motivation becomes your best tool. Get-Fit Guy explains.

Brock Armstrong
5-minute read
Episode #541
The Quick And Dirty
  • Motivation is not a state of being or a measureable entity. 
  • We often wait for motivation when we actually need to look for it.
  • We can look externally or internally for motivation.
  • Internal motivation is the most helpful and consistent, if it's anchored in personal desire. 

Motivation is such a tricky topic.  How we get motivated, stay motivated, create motivation, and recreate motivation is and always has been a hot topic in the world of exercise and fitness. Trust me, you are not the only one who doesn’t feel motivated every single morning to lace up your runners and get your heart rate up. Even professional athletes occasionally have to drag their butts to practice. 

So, with that in mind...

What is motivation?

In 1993, French researchers Vallerand and Thill wrote a paper called "Introduction à la psychologie de la motivation," in which they described motivation as a “Hypothetical construct used to describe the internal and/or external forces that produce initiation, direction, intensity, and persistence of behaviour.” That is quite a brain teaser so let’s break it down. 

The main reason why I like this definition is that right out of the gate it states that motivation is a “hypothetical construct.” It’s not a fixed state. It’s not measurable or provable. It’s not something you can purchase or borrow. It’s not even something you can store for later. And, most importantly, it may not even exist. 

Like the proverbial tree falling in an empty forest, if there is no one around to enjoy the motivation, is it still there?

The other reason I like this definition is because it identifies that the forces that drive us to feel this hypothetical construct are both internal and external. You may have heard of this referred to as Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. We’ll get back to that in a moment. 

The final reason I like this definition is because of how motivation can manifest itself and be used. For example:

  • It can be the reason you actually hit the gym. 
  • It can be the reason you choose to do a particular workout over another. 
  • It can be the reason you push yourself harder than you did the day before. 
  • It can also be the reason that you are consistent in your exercise routine. 

Are you getting the idea that we have wrapped far too many complicated things into one overly simplistic term? I am. But let’s keep going. 

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

In the 2011 book Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, authors Weinberg and Gould made this distinction: 

  • Intrinsic motivation is the drive from your inner self to be successful, because of the enjoyment or pride you feel when performing or improving your skill level.
  • Extrinsic motivation is gained from rewards offered by an external source and could be either tangible or intangible.

They went on to clarify that a tangible reward could be something physical (like a trophy or prize money) and an intangible reward could be praise from a coach, fans, or family members (and, perhaps if this book was written now, that would also include "likes" on social media). 

I find that praise rarely keeps me motivated for long ... I have always found more initiation, direction, intensity, and persistence when I am internally motivated to move my body.

While I enjoy taking home a medal from a finish line and am always happy when a coach, sibling, or social media follower praises me, I find that particular type of praise rarely keeps me motivated for long. Honestly, when I was competing at my highest level, the fear of letting my coaches down kept me more motivated than their praise did. Which, in hindsight, seems dysfunctional but I have to say that it got results! 

Outside of my time as a dedicated athlete, I have always found more initiation, direction, intensity and persistence when I am internally motivated to move my body. And this is a cornerstone of my coaching and my work as a behaviourist in the Weighless program. At the beginning of both, I encourage my athletes to spend some time finding, identifying and articulating their “why” or their “compelling reason” to do what it is they are attempting to do. For more info on finding your compelling reason, check out this episode of my the Change Academy podcast that I co-host with Monica Reinagel (aka, the Nutrition Diva).

If you aren’t enjoying the movement or exercise that you are currently doing, you better at least enjoy how it makes you feel after you are done.

In the end, I always say that if you aren’t enjoying the movement or exercise that you are currently doing, you darn well better at least enjoy how it makes you feel after you are done. Otherwise, the problem isn’t one of a hypothetical construct -- you simply chose the wrong workout.

Let me put it this way: If you hate running, hate the way you feel after running, see no value in trying to get better at running, and no one is waiting at the end of the treadmill with a check for $100, then don’t run. You don't have a "why" or a "compelling reason" to run. 

Even if you have willpower pouring out of your ears, you are likely never going to make running a healthy, happy, and worthwhile habit. There is neither intrinsic nor extrinsic motivation present to continue the activity. And unless you have a rare disease that is only cured by the biomechanical motion of running, there are many different ways to fulfill the criteria that make movement into exercise

The criteria are simple. The movement must:

  • raise your heart rate (a little or a lot)
  • challenge your muscles (a little or a lot)
  • tease your balance and mobility (as much as you feel safe doing)
  • be repeatable, consistently

Outsourcing extrinsic motivation

With the boom in activity trackers, online workout platforms, and of course good old social media, we have found many new sources of extrinsic motivation. But I believe that these will all be fleeting if we don’t anchor them with an intrinsic motivator. 

We all know that we should be breaking up our sedentary time with bouts of movement on a regular basis.

For example, many of the wrist-worn activity trackers have a “stand alarm” of some sort that alerts you when you have been sitting (or remaining still) for a while. This feature seems like a great idea. We all know that we should be breaking up our sedentary time with bouts of movement on a regular basis. So having a device, that is aware of how still you are, should be the solution, right? Sadly, not so much. 

A study called "Behavior Change with Fitness Technology in Sedentary Adults" concluded that “Overall, many behavior change strategies are included in fitness technology. However, it is not clear how often these features are regularly used. There is the potential for sustained increases in physical activity; however, many strategies are missing that would be most helpful to individuals who are currently inactive.” 

Simply having a device that told the study participants to get up and move was not enough. Many of them eventually ignored (or didn’t use) that feature and without other strategies the efficacy of these devices wass short-lived and ultimately ineffective. 

The study authors suggest that “... adding other strategies such as identifying obstacles, restructuring negative attitudes, action planning, and modifying environmental factors to motivate inactive populations …” would make these devices more effective. In other words, fitness technologies are not enough on their own. So once again, we are back to that elusive idea of finding motivation. 

A radical approach to fitness

So, I propose a radical new approach to choosing your new workout plan:  Find one that gets you excited, feels good, is rewarding (before or at least after it is done), and you can forget all about that motivational Pinterest board you created. You’ll have all the compelling reasons you need to get out and move your body right there inside you. And if that feeling passes, well simply find some new activities that rekindle that feeling. 

You got this! 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.