Dr. Gray's Straight Talk

Honest and blunt healthcare discussion and advice.

What’s Your Motivation For Exercise?

Posted by Dr. Gray on Monday, September 14, 2009

As chiropractors, our main philosophy is based on finding the cause of problems, rather than focusing on symptoms. Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak with several professional athletes about many different subjects. One subject during our conversations was in reference to the type of exercise they do during the off-season to stay physically fit. One expressed that he liked to play tennis. He said he would rather play tennis for two hours than ride a stationary bike for 30 minutes. At this point, I started to think about what motivates a person to want to stay physically fit. In the case of a professional athlete, it might be the possibility of making millions of dollars for as long as they are able. That might be one reason. But what about the average person? What is the average person’s motivation to exercise?

The root cause of many of America’s health problems may go beyond poor diet and obesity. These may be mere symptoms of the underlying cause of the problem – motivation, or the lack of it. The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. Everyday we are bombarded with the latest stats on nutrition, or pounded with the ultimate miracle diet that will solve all of our problems. We all know eating poorly or being stagnant translates into poor health, so we have the knowledge. Unfortunately, knowledge has not translated into willpower. Over 50% of people who start an exercise program quit within less than a year, and over 90% who start some type of diet fail and gain all the weight back.

This problem is not complicated. Most people associate exercise as something dreadful. However, look at what the professional athlete said, “I would rather spend 2 hours playing tennis than 30 minutes riding a stationary bike.” So the key is to find an alternative you like, and stick to it. If you want to succeed, stop forcing yourself to participate in exercises you don’t enjoy doing. Most people don’t get driven away from exercise due to the physical abuse the body takes, it is the mental abuse they suffer in thinking they have to do things they dread. This new way of thinking about exercise is very similar to the psychological theory known as self-determination theory (SDT). The premise behind SDT says that the more self-determined we are, or the more we are doing what we want to do, the happier and more successful we tend to be. Most people go through life believing that everything is done for external rewards, or out of fear of punishment. That external-reward thought process that is known as behaviorism. The thought that we might have an internal motivation that is natural to us was laughed at. The common population has forgotten that we may do things for the mere fact that we enjoy doing them.

If I ask my kids why they run as fast as they can, or why they climb and swing from the monkey bars, they don’t answer that it’s to keep their body fat down or have huge biceps. They do these things because it is a game, and it is very fun for them. As we get older, many of these intrinsic motivators leave us due to the realities of the “real world”: the need to earn a living, demands of relationships and family, and constant need to be entertained by the computer and TV. As a result, we become lazy… at least until external demands become so great that we have to do something or we will get sick and die. At that point, we get the gym membership and a new pair of Nike Air’s. But that is the real problem though, we are at that point of letting external causes be the determining factor of why we should exercise. This type of thinking starts a vicious cycle, and ultimately sets us up for failure. Remember the less intrinsic your motivation is, the more likely you are to dread or fail at doing something. That something might be exercise, work, school, or dieting. However, the more intrinsic your motivation is, the more apt you are to want to keep doing it.

My suggestion is to take out a sheet of paper. At the top, write “How Motivated AM I”? This can be for anything from your job to business to personal goals, but in this case, let’s make it exercise. Write down what it is that motivates you to exercise. If you realize that you don’t have a reason, chances are you won’t stick with any program. If you write down because other people think I look good, eventually the chances for burn out are much higher because you can’t go through life trying to please everybody. If you write down that you enjoy it, then you are heading in the right direction. Another topic you may want to consider writing down is what motivation type you are. The more you rely on extrinsic factors rather than intrinsic factors the less likelihood for success. The more you are doing things that you like to do, the happier and more enjoyment you will have.

Open your mind to new ways of exercise that are fun. I have recently started playing dodgeball and kickball with my kids, and swinging from the monkey bars that come off our deck. Sometimes we play for hours. Everybody can find something that motivates them, you just have to want to do it.

Article by: Dr. Josh Sonsiadek


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