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What Will Motivate Me the Most to Keep Working Out?

Anger? Envy? Admiration? Personal fulfillment? Which won’t have me cancelling my gym membership within 24 hours?

When it’s your mission to at least make a good faith effort to exercise every single day, you’ll probably find that your motivation for enduring the punishment of training will wax and wane from one day to the next. Over the course of my life, I’ve tapped into absolutely every sort of thought, feeling or emotion I’ve ever felt and somehow managed to weaponize it into a productive lift. To that end, I’ve transformed emotional pain into pull-ups, pride into power cleans and defiance into deadlifts.

But that’s very much a day-to-day, sometimes an exercise-to-exercise approach. What about the long-term? What’s the most sustainable fitness motivation, particularly in light of the frequency with which many people suddenly and dramatically abandon their training routines, often within months or weeks of initiating them? After all, only one out of every five gym goers who signs up for a membership in January will still be capitalizing on that membership five months later.

Yeah, which workout motivation will last me the longest?

That’s a tough question to answer, because the variance between individuals is boundless, especially on the far ends of almost any distribution. However, there are a few studies and anecdotes we can draw from to make some educated guesses as to which motivations are the most practical and viable. 

The first emotion we should probably scrutinize beneath a fitness lens is anger. Even among athletes, the effectiveness of anger to carry them through to a peak performance is greatly varied. Anger often clouds focus, and a lack of focus during heavy, highly technical lifts can lead to serious injuries. However, in cardiovascular training situations, studies have demonstrated that anger was shown to be an effective motivator and performance enhancer among untrained runners. It made no difference, though, in the performance of experienced runners. Therefore, intentionally angering yourself will probably only be of a limited benefit in most fitness scenarios, and probably only for those who are less advanced. 

What about trying to match the athletic feats of someone I admire?  

If watching the Rock lay the smack down on the dip stand while wearing massive chains to add weight to his reps is going to inspire you to get to the gym, go for it. However, this is a poor long-term approach. Realistically, comparing yourself to Dwayne Johnson is a self-defeating tactic; the gap between “The Most Electrifying Man in Sports and Entertainment” and even most fit people is so vast that most of us are likely to feel completely discouraged by it. 

Not only has research demonstrated how upward comparison only drives the comparer to positive action if they feel that improvement toward the ideal is actually attainable, but the same study demonstrated that envy is a superior motivator to admiration in most cases. But again, even if you envy more than admire the screen-ready bodies of Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, you need to feel like you too could have America’s ass or swing Thor’s mighty hammer in order for it to motivate you to keep hitting the gym.

Okay, so what’s the best source of motivation for fitness longevity?

I’m going to need to go anecdotal with this one, so please hear me out.

I was stuck between 220 and 230 pounds for several years; I was strong and fit in the eyes of most people, but I could feel the extra size bearing down on my body in undesirable ways, and I found it very difficult to sustain the momentum in my dieting and exercise that was required to permanently shed all of the superfluous pounds. So what did I do? I joined a masters swim team and started having my in-water performance evaluated by a stopwatch on a regular basis, which motivated me to train harder and eat responsibly. The result was a loss of 25 pounds in two months, all inspired by my desire to feel more productive in general, and more useful to my team in particular.

Studies have shown that feelings of usefulness help people to remain more focused on their goals, and that feelings of general productivity permit them to adapt more readily to change. In addition, feeling useful also makes it less likely for people to experience depressive episodes. Based on this, a fitness environment in which your productivity is monitored, your improvement is measurable and your usefulness to others can be enhanced is highly conducive to sustaining progress toward fitness. (Again, I certainly can attest to it.)

Or better put, sometimes fitness is a byproduct of another ambition. For some people, attempting to become fit for its own sake will only take you so far, but if you make a good-faith attempt to become measurably bigger, stronger, faster or more durable — especially if others are cheering for your progress and stand to benefit from your improvement — you might just become fitter by proxy. 

Better yet, you might never stop.