How to overcome a lack of motivation to exercise

Published April 13, 2021

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We all know exercise can be one of the best things we do for our health. But finding the motivation to start and maintain an exercise program can be difficult.

Why? Studies have found several reasons why you might lack the motivation to exercise:

  1. You have competing demands for your time — You might be working and studying or trying to balance work and family commitments and can’t find the time to exercise.
  2. You doubt your competency — You might feel you’re not physically fit enough or skilled enough to start an exercise program.
  3. You exercise because you ‘have to’ not because you ‘want to’ — Many people start exercising because they feel they ‘have to’ — they’ve set a new year’s resolution — not because they ‘want to’ — they love running. Interest starts to wane and exercise stops.

If research has identified why you lack motivation, how do you overcome your motivational challenges?

3 secrets of the highly motivated

Ever wonder how people committed to a fitness regime stick with it? Is it just easier for them? Do they have more free time than you? Or is it their attitude? Studies have shown three secrets behind the highly motivated.

  1. Autonomy — Autonomy refers to how much control you feel over your behaviour and how much freedom you enjoy during your exercise program. Have you chosen the type of exercise you’re doing? Do you have the freedom to vary your exercise if you want? Highly motivated people are doing the exercise they love.
  2. Competency — Competency involves feeling capable and able to improve and master new skills. If you haven’t exercised for a long time, competency may be an issue. Improved competency leads to better exercise outcomes and greater motivation.
  3. Relatedness Relatedness is about developing emotional connections and positive interactions with others while you exercise. Do you have a supportive coach or trainer? Are you exercising with friends? People with a great support network stick with their exercise goals.

Understanding these 3 factors behind motivation can help keep you start taking some action, stay focused on your fitness goals and guide you when your interest begins to wane.

Putting the 3 secrets of the highly motivated into action

Pace yourself

When you first start an exercise program, start slowly. Go at your own pace and work your way up to at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise on most days of the week, as your stamina improves.  You may also need to do an exercise pre-screen with your healthcare professional before starting an exercise program. This helps you start your exercise program on the right foot preventing exercise exacerbating a pre-existing medical condition.  Starting at your own pace boosts your autonomy and helps you feel in control of your behaviour.

Set your intention

Setting your intentions or goals for exercise is the most immediate predictor of exercise behaviour.  Setting your own goals or intentions boosts your autonomy and helps you feel in control of your exercise routine.

Focus on learning a skill

Take the focus off starting an exercise program and shift your focus to learning a new ‘skill’. Learn to dance the tango,  do a backflip or do a multi-day bush trek. Developing the cardio skills or core strength to successfully learn your new skill, will improve your health and fitness without feeling like you need to commit to a ‘program’. Setting these intrinsic goals has been shown to boost exercise motivation (autonomy), rather than relying on extrinsic goals such as weight loss or gym membership programs.

Make it social

Exercising with a group, friend or partner, helps keep you motivated by developing emotional connections. These emotional connections provide:

  • Support — Support from and for your exercise buddy.
  • Humour — Laughing with your exercise buddies makes exercise more enjoyable and has been shown to increase motivation.
  • Goals — Having a team goal such as reaching the finals for improving on the team’s performance helps you stay motivated.

Monitor your performance

Monitoring your progress and noting your improvements in your skill level positively influences your relationship with exercise and boosts your competency. Use an app or set up a spreadsheet to track your progress. Share your results with your team or exercise buddy.

Join an online support group

Find an online group with similar fitness goals to your own for motivation and support on a global scale. This can help you develop the emotional connections you need to stay motivated to exercise.

Find a supportive trainer

Working with a supportive coach or trainer has been shown to increase exercise motivation and compliance with exercise programs in several ways:

  • Emotional connectedness — A supportive coach or trainer can give you the emotional support you need to stay on track.


  • Build and tracking competency — A coach can help you build the competency you need to develop a new skill or strength, proactively and healthily.


  • Supporting autonomy — A coach can help you reach your training goals and help you feel you are in control of your exercise outcomes.

Commit to 6 months

The longer you exercise, the higher the chance of you sticking with exercise as part of a long-term health routine. Studies have shown that people who have exercised for at least 6 months or more are less likely to drop out of an exercise program. By committing to 6 months of exercise you help build your competency and support your autonomy.

We all know the importance of exercise for our physical and psychological wellbeing, but in today’s busy world, it can easily fall to the bottom of our list of priorities. To keep motivated and stay on track remember the three secrets to getting motivated — autonomy, competency and relatedness. Set your exercise goals with the three secrets in mind and enjoy the benefits of exercise across all facets of your life.


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