Empty Gym


Why is motivation so hard?

There are many barriers to exercise - we've all had days where we really don't feel motivated. For some people, these barriers are really hard to overcome. Many people feel uncomfortable going to gyms, which frequently seem to be full of young, beautiful people, at ease with all the machines. This can come from a negative body image – overweight, underweight, lack of muscles, disability, age, gender, or from a perceived lack of ability, or because you have nobody to go with, and walking into a gym by yourself can be intimidating.

Motivation is a real problem – those promoting physical activity believe intrinsic motivation is vital (Biddle & Mutrie, 2008, p.78). This comes from enjoyment or satisfaction from doing an activity, whereas extrinsic motivation derives from external pressure, perhaps comments about your weight, or rewards, such as money or prestige; involvement in an activity is more likely to cease without intrinsic motivation (Biddle & Mutrie, 2008, pp.78-79).

Intrinsically motivated behaviour is linked to autonomy - it's important to have ‘feelings of self-control or self-determination’ (Deci and Ryan, 1985). You need confidence in your ability to master the activity, and to know that you've chosen to participate (Biddle & Mutrie, 2008). Confidence is an important motivating factor in exercise. To be motivated, individuals need to believe in their capability to master an activity, even if it's challenging to do. The fact that it's a challenge, but that you have the confidence to master it, gives you the motivation to put in the effort to keep trying. And the sense of achievement once you do is immense. It's important to develop a 'growth mindset' (Mueller and Dweck, 1998), so that instead of saying “I'll never be able to do that”, you say “I can't do that yet, but if I keep trying I will be able to”. The effort becomes the important thing, rather than simply achieving something easily. A certain amount of failure can actually make you work harder towards your goal and add to your determination.

It's important to find an activity that you actually enjoy, rather than dread doing exercise. Obviously it may not all be enjoyable all the time you're exercising, but if you do have fun most of the time, and if you feel better for doing it afterwards, deriving feelings of achievement and satisfaction from having exerted and challenged yourself, you'll be far more likely to look forward to your next session. For those who struggle with motivation, it's also vital to have the right support – you need encouragement, so that you can believe in yourself, and discover that, actually, you can do so much more than you thought you could.


Biddle, S.J.H. & Mutrie, N. (2008). Psychology of Physical Activity, determinants, wellbeing and interventions. 2nd Edition. Oxon: Routledge.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. Contemporary Sociology, 3(2) DOI: 10.2307/2070638

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.33