Using the Science of Motivation to Achieve your Fitness Goals

Staying motivated when starting a new fitness plan — or sticking with an established plan – is one of the most challenging aspects of working out. Changing it up by trying a new piece of equipment at the gym, signing up for a new boot camp class, or rewarding yourself with a fresh set of new workout attire can help. However, building long-term, enduring motivation takes time and energy.

Motivation levels are highest when intention and goal-setting are aligned. For example, think about how crowded gyms and fitness studios can get after the holidays and after the New Year. When people get very specific about what they want to accomplish, it makes a significant difference in terms of their ability to achieve their goals.

Benefits of Regular Physical Activity

Physical activity is beneficial for the mind and body – it helps us deal with stress more effectively, boosts mood-enhancing hormones like endorphins, and strengthens vital organs and muscles in our body.

Studies have also shown that exercise even helps individuals who are dealing with health conditions such as clinical depression, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, cancer, and lung disease, to name a few. Exercise can even help improve your memory, which becomes more and more important as we begin to age.

In addition to these benefits, engaging in regular physical activity can help you lower your risk of certain chronic diseases. Making sure you get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity helps you significantly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You can lower your risk for other diseases such as type 2 diabetes and certain cancers by staying active. Furthermore, individuals with type 2 diabetes can control their blood glucose levels by being physically active. Moderate-intensity aerobic activity can involve exercise that is as easy and low-impact as brisk walking. Starting slow is important, and is safer for most individuals (CDC, 2018).

To summarize, research shows that exercise has so many tangible benefits that can positively affect how we think and feel each day. For those who are new to fitness and don’t know how or where to begin, goal setting can help you achieve what you desire.

How to Set Achievable Goals

The American Council on Exercise’s guidelines to goal setting include five clearly defined aspects: be specific, and make your goals measurable, attainable, and relevant, and time-bound (American Council on Exercise, 2013).

In order to be specific about your goals, you should make them as clear as possible. For example, using broad terminology such as “I want to eat healthier,” or “I want to lose weight” are not clear enough. Try taking your intention one step further by identifying what you’d like to do in more detail, such as “I want to incorporate more green leafy vegetables into my diet,” or “I want to lose 10 pounds by my birthday” are more specific and therefore more impactful.

The second aspect of goal setting involves making your goal measurable. To do this, you’ll need to map out exactly how you’ll track your progress, and how often. Measuring how you are achieving your goal involves regular check-ins with yourself. If your goal is to lose weight, you’ll need to weigh yourself regularly to see how you’re doing. If your goal is to eat healthier, consider using a food diary or smartphone app to keep track of what you’re eating and how you can make food choices that are more nourishing for your body.

Making your goal attainable involves being realistic. If the goal is too ambitious, it can be demoralizing when you fall short. Research indicates that an overall weight loss goal of 5 to 10% is doable for most overweight individuals.

To be relevant with goal-setting, you must be sure you’re setting the goal for yourself, as opposed to setting a goal because of external pressures from your friends, partner or family. If your intention is to get back to the body you had before childbirth, think deeply about the reason why. Is it to please your partner or to keep up with the other moms? These reasons may be part of why, but they should not be the main motivation.

Finally, it is crucial to include a clearly defined time frame with your goal. For example, “I want to lose 10 pounds by my birthday,” instead of keeping the goal vague and undefined. Always include a timeline for your goal so you can keep yourself accountable as you work toward achieving it.

Using Change as a Motivating Agent

Understanding how your body changes when you go from being sedentary to exercising regularly can be tremendously motivating. More specifically, observing the tangible changes in your body can inspire you to keep going when life gets in the way of your workout routine, or when things get tough. Taking before and after photos or taking photos of your body at regular intervals can help you see physical changes such as weight loss, gains in muscle tone, and more.

Making Motivation Work for You

The two types of motivation that humans respond to include intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Understanding how these two types work, and identifying which type you respond to, can help you increase your self-efficacy and help you change your health-related behaviors.

People who are intrinsically motivated are motivated to complete a task, like eating right or working out, because it makes them feel good. They derive pleasure from simply performing the action. Individuals who are intrinsically motivated typically find it easier to develop and stay committed to a goal because they continue pursuing the goal even in the absence of external motivators or rewards. They tend to stay the course when things get tough.

“Those who engage in exercise with intrinsic motives get more pleasure, enjoyment, and fun out of the experience. As health professionals, our goal is to get people there – to give them autonomy over their activity, rather than motivating them only with external rewards and punishments,” said Dr. Nicole Fearnbach, postdoctoral scholar at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. She cited an article on the topic of exercise motivation and influence on post-exercise snacking behavior (Dimmock et al., 2015). Intrinsically motivated individuals who categorize exercise as fun are less likely to engage in mindless or unhealthy snacking.

By contrast, people who are extrinsically motivated complete a task because they anticipate a reward of some sort. This type of motivation is externally driven, and the reward can include praise, fame, or money. Individuals who are extrinsically motivated respond well to competitions or challenges.

Generally, it is healthy to identify with a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. People who consider themselves intrinsically motivated should consider ways to make external factors work for them. For example, participating in an office fitness challenge with their co-workers in which the winner gets a prize. Changing it up can help you understand different ways in which you can motivate yourself. Alternatively, for those who are more externally driven, learning how to enjoy a task that you may consider unpleasant, such as weight lifting or running, can be character building.

In addition to understanding what type of motivation to which you respond best, scheduling your workouts the same way you schedule other routine events like doctors’ appointments and meetings can help you keep up with your goals. During times in your life when you are busier than usual – or when motivation is lacking – you may need to increase the stakes to ensure you stick with your exercise appointments. Interestingly, research has shown that the idea of a monetary loss can galvanize people to get to the gym.

A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 challenged 281 overweight participants to reach a goal of taking at least 7,000 steps per day for 13 weeks using three separate financial incentive methods (Patel et al., 2016). Researchers tracked progress through the participants’ smartphones. The first group of participants was financially incentivized by receiving a fixed amount of money ($1.40 per day), if they achieved their step goal. Another group had $1.40 taken away for each day in which they did not reach their step goal. The researchers found that the loss incentive was the most significant motivator for achieving the step goal. In other words, people respond most to the prospect of losing something, like money.

“People tend to be loss averse, meaning they are more motivated to prevent [from] losing something than by being rewarded the same amount. This to our knowledge was one of the first studies to demonstrate that behavioral tendency could be used to increase physical activity,” said Dr. Mitesh Patel, the study’s main researcher.

For individuals who do not have a workplace wellness program or a team to keep them accountable, Dr. Patel has other suggestions.

“For someone [who] wanted to do this, they could look to their insurance plan to see if a similar wellness program was available, or there are website and smartphone apps that will let one put money down contingent on achieving a goal,” he added.

As for the specific amount of funds, it can vary. In the study, Patel and his team tested $1.40 per day and have conducted another trial testing $2.00 per day. He feels this is a good baseline, but higher amounts may be more motivating for individuals who want to lose a great deal of weight or have more intensive fitness goals.

There is an easy way to take the principle behind this study and make it work for you. Decide on a set amount of money to put away into a separate bank account, or physically put a fixed amount of money into a jar. Every time you fail to keep your exercise appointment, remove a certain amount of money from the account or jar. After a few times, the anticipation of losing the funds will likely keep you motivated.

Sustaining Long-Term Motivation

Inevitably, plateauing is an inherent part of adhering to any exercise routine. Reviewing your goals, tweaking them as needed, checking your intention and remembering why you began are all ways to help avoid the negative aspects that come with the plateau.

“Generally, we like to encourage people to do exercise that is fun for them and doesn’t feel too difficult. Previous research has shown that people who think exercise is harder are at greater risk of overeating after exercise and regaining weight after successful weight loss. Enjoyment really is key to long term habit formation and success,” added Dr. Fearnbach.

The science of motivation can reveal a great deal about how people can develop and increase their motivation levels, how to sustain motivation overtime, and how to troubleshoot when experiencing a lack of motivation.

Building in strategic rewards can be another useful tactic to sustain long-term motivation. For example, rewards that integrate physical activity with quality time, like going on a run as a family or going on a weekend hike with your partner. Another idea is to treat yourself to a new, upgraded piece of fitness equipment you have been eyeing, or to purchase new workout gear that makes you feel good. Finally, rewards that are not food-related will work best to ensure you don’t fall off the wagon when it comes to achieving your goals.

Building a Positive Self-Image

As you become more confident and empowered in your intention and goal setting, you will be able to cultivate a positive self-image. Building up this image can help you learn to appreciate your body holistically and explore the mind-body benefits that exercise can bring to your everyday life.

By Nicki Karimipour, PhD

Dr. Nicki Karimipour is a communications expert and experienced researcher. She obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Health Communications from the University of Florida. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University.

Dr. Karimipour has previous experience in writing and editing for both print and online publications, and in teaching journalism, health writing, and public relations at the undergraduate and graduate level.
Her research-related experience ranges from collaborating with medical researchers and consulting on clinical trials, to clinical research program management. Her own research focuses on a variety of health topics, such as effects of social media use on female body image, football and concussions, and e-cigarette use among youth. Her research has been published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Research, the Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, and the Journal of Sports Media.

She is based in Los Angeles, California and currently works at the University of Southern California in clinical trial operations. Follow her on Twitter: @NickiKPhD


American Council on Exercise. (2013). “SMART Goal Setting Guide.” Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). “Physical Activity and Health.” Retrieved from

Dimmock, J.A., Guelfi, K.J., West, J.S., Masih, T., & Jackson, B. (2015). Does motivation for exercise influence post-exercise snacking behavior? Nutrients, 7, 4804-4816. doi: 10.3390/nu7064804

Patel, M., Asch, D.A., Rosin, R., Small, D.S., Bellamy, S.L., Heuer, J., . . . Volpp, K.G. (2016). Framing financial incentives to increase physical activity among overweight and obese adults: A randomized, controlled trial. Annals of Internal Medicine, 164(6), 385-394. doi: 10.7326/M15-1635

Photo credit: nd3000/Shutterstock; Liderina/Shutterstock; gpointstudio/Shutterstock; CrispyPork/Shutterstock

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