Creating new physical activity habits that last can be hard for so many reasons. Staying motivated long enough for our new physical activities to become part of our everyday is just one of the challenges. We all know moving more and making sustainable positive change for our health and wellbeing is worth it, but how do we actually maintain our motivation to get there? Science tells us that the key to long-term changes to physical activity is to pay attention and act in line with how we feel (1-5).

How-To-Stay-Motivated

When we first make the decision to become more active, we typically feel great – really motivated and ready to change (4). At this point, we start taking action: we may join a gym or sign up for an exercise class, buy new active wear or fill a gym bag. And this initial motivation works great to get us started and prepared for making new physical activity habits (2,3).

When we start being physically active, it often comes with feelings of a sense of accomplishment, better sleep, and elevated mood (1). These ‘good feels’ can keep us motivated for weeks, even if we ache after a leg work-out and have to pace ourselves while we climb stairs or go to sit on the toilet – just me??

Human nature is such that our initially high motivation and good vibes about starting to increase our physical activity can alter over time (6). What may have begun as feelings of excitement and eagerness before a morning run could change more into feelings of dread as the weeks pass.

When this happens, because we’re human, we start missing a few planned sessions – or even worse, we force ourselves into doing something we are not in the mood for. And on days we don’t meet our goals, we can start feeling guilty or ashamed. For a few days or weeks, we may be able to talk ourselves into doing the physical activity, simply to avoid feelings of guilt and shame, but it relies on our motivation and self-control (1-3).

Guilt and shame don’t just feel bad though – when felt regularly, they can have long term consequences to our mental health. And it’s not worth it; the evidence is quite clear that guilt and shame are detrimental for our efforts to change habits (2,3,5).

Emotions and motivation change over time during all efforts to change our habits (1-3). But increasing physical activity comes with the added challenge that it requires overcoming the hurdle of physical effort (7). Getting and staying motivated to do something that requires exertion is really hard, especially if we’re feeling low key or mellow.

It can be challenging when that initial feeling of motivation dwindles or our self-control is being used up by the many other demands our lives put on us (8). When this happens, we often make excuses to get out of doing the physical activity. Sometimes we even quit the activity entirely. The truth is, we’re pretty good at coming up with reasons why we can’t do something that we don’t want to do. Instead of gritting our teeth and just doing the physical activity that we are starting to dread, what if we actually listen to how we feel and decide to try something different? Instead of making ourselves do physical activity, why don’t we make physical activity work for us?

How can you make this work for you?

It's ok (and really normal) if you don’t like going to the gym. It’s totally reasonable to change up what activity you do every few weeks or months. Instead of beating yourself up about missing a session, take it for what it is – a sign that something about that didn’t work for you. Rather than blame yourself and your lack of self-control, think about what you could do differently to make it easier for you to do physical activity when you are feeling low key or busy, or just not in the mood.

We tend to make habits out of things that are satisfying, fun, and/or make our lives easier (1-3). So, if the physical activity you’re trying doesn’t tick one of those boxes for you, try something else.

There are so many wonderful ways to be physically active, you could spend a lifetime trying out all the options.

If you start enjoying something, great – keep going! If eventually it gives you the ‘icks’ or you get bored, move on to something else – the key is to not stop being active, but to swap what activity you are doing. Our feelings are valid and important. It's time to stop ignoring them and to start giving them the focus they deserve.

Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after physical activity. If the good feels just aren’t happening for you, try something else.

Here are some other articles on similar topics that might be of interest:

About the author

Dr Amanda Rebar is Associate Professor at CQUniversity and director of the Motivation of Health Behaviours (MoHB) Lab. She has experience providing evidence-based guidance for community-based programs with a focus on mental health and safety outcomes.

Dr Rebar’s research focuses on the psychology of behaviour change and the impact of changes in behaviour on mental health and wellbeing. While her work draws on a range of methodologies, she is a strong advocate for longitudinal repeated assessment designs and multi-level analysis for testing predictive relationships in real-world contexts.

Web-Amanda-Rebar

References:

  1. Williams, David M., Ryan E. Rhodes, and Mark T. Conner (eds), Affective determinants of health behavior (New York, 2018; online edn, Oxford Academic, 24 May 2018), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190499037.001.0001, accessed 8 Apr. 2023.
  2. Wood, Wendy. Good habits, bad habits: The science of making positive changes that stick (New York, 2019; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
  3. Verplanken, Bas (ed), The psychology of habit (New York, 2018; Springer).
  4. Rhodes, R. E., McEwan, D., & Rebar, A. L. (2019). Theories of physical activity behaviour change: A history and synthesis of approaches. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 42, 100-109.
  5. Rebar, A. L., Dimmock, J. A., Jackson, B., Rhodes, R. E., Kates, A., Starling, J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2016). A systematic review of the effects of non-conscious regulatory processes in physical activity. Health Psychology Review, 10(4), 395-407.
  6. Rebar, A., Rosenbaum, S., & Maher, J. P. (2020). Responsiveness to change of the psychological determinants and outcomes of physical activity and sedentary behavior. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 49, 1-3.
  7. Cheval, B., & Boisgontier, M. P. (2021). The theory of effort minimization in physical activity. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 49(3), 168-178.
  8. Hall, P. A., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: A model for individual health behavior. Health Psychology Review, 1(1), 6-52.

The Activate Your Everyday Series is proudly supported by the Queensland Government and Health and Wellbeing Queensland through ActiveKIT Round 2

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