In the early stages of the lockdown, the streets were teeming with runners and the living rooms were a blur of uncoordinated star jumps and lunges. In fact, levels of physical activity in the UK peak around mid-late May, just before lockdown restrictions began to ease. Today, after months of fluctuating social restrictions, many people are reporting on social media that they have suddenly lost their motivation to exercise.
The truth is that the motivation simply returns to normal. The weather in the UK was ideal for exercising in April and May, and many of us had more time available to exercise. Two major barriers to exercise have been removed. Generally, the motivation is a battle of different choices. Under normal circumstances, exercise competes against many other appealing hobbies, such as going to the pub, the movies, or spending time with friends. But during the harshest part of the nationwide lockdown, the choice was either to get outside to exercise or to stay home all day. The odds of motivation have shifted in favor of exercise.
Lockdowns around the world have also acted similarly to a new year, a new school term, or a birthday. Important dates and events can disrupt routines and provide an opportunity to take a new start, so many of us have started exercising. But, like New Year’s resolutions, our motivation faded over time.
The type of motivation needed to start a new behavior is often very different from the motivation needed to maintain one. Most people start exercising because they know it’s good for them and outside pressures (like TV commercials or friends) tell them they should. The “should-do” motivations are a effective way to start a new behavior.
But as the lockdown eased, barriers to exercise reappeared – like being able to hang out with friends in the pub or needing to get your kids ready for school again. Relying on “should-do” motivations in these scenarios requires considerable mental effort and willpower. Unfortunately, one of the most interesting aspects of human motivation is that we don’t like sense of effort and will and tend to avoid it. The pub, the kids, fatigue and work all win the battle against exercise. “Should-do” motivations are terrible for maintaining exercise behavior.
Even some people who exercised religiously report a loss of motivation. But again, the type of motivation driving their exercise may explain why this happened. People who exercise for the approval of others or to boost their self-esteem often report an increase anxiety and body dissatisfaction, despite high levels of exercise. The lockdown (and gym closures) may have heightened these negative feelings, as the situation meant people weren’t getting the compliments and ego boosts they were looking for.
To arrest these motivation dips, a two-pronged approach is needed that facilitates short-term exercise while building strong long-term motivation. When it comes to long-term motivation, many psychologists think your identity is one of the most resilient motivational systems. Identity can often be a vague and difficult term to describe, but in simple terms, “Being” goals are more motivating than “achievement” objectives. So instead of “doing” exercise, focus on “being” someone who exercises.
These “being” motivations require much less mental effort to act, and you will naturally look for opportunities to demonstrate your “exercise” identity. It is less mentally exhausting to “be” exercise than to continually try to “do” exercise, as attention is naturally attracted by opportunities to exercise and away from other temptations. In some ways, that’s not fair. People who have been exercising for years and consider themselves athletic find it very easy to be motivated to exercise. Those of us who don’t consider ourselves athletic, but want to exercise, need a lot of mental effort and willpower to leave the house.
This process takes some time, so we also need quick motivational solutions while our healthy user identity develops. In the short term, the guiding principle should be to minimize the effort required to exercise:
Schedule your exercise when it is easiest to do. For many, this may mean exercising as early in the day as possible before temptations and obstacles that require effort to overcome begin to appear.
Make it easy to exercise. Get your gym clothes out of the drawer and get them ready the night before. Plan an exercise that does not require travel to a specific location. Do as many things as possible beforehand so that when the time comes, starting your training will be easy.
Break the exercise process into pieces. For example, changing into sports clothes requires only a little effort. Getting out of the door requires only a little effort. Before you know it, it’s harder not to exercise than to do it.
Do what you like. It’s simple and requires a minimum of motivation repeat the exercise that feels good. If you feel like jumping rope or dancing instead of lifting weights or jogging, it’s better to do what you want to do and it takes a lot less mental effort than trying to force yourself to do something you think you should do.
While many of us aren’t looking forward to further social restrictions, it could give us another opportunity to develop a healthier lifestyle. Focusing on “being” exercise and minimizing mental effort will lead to fewer sudden drops in motivation to exercise in the long run.