With gyms closed and outdoor activities limited, it goes without saying that our normal fitness routines have been interrupted. Yes, there are tons of home options being broadcasted all over the internet. Yes, home workouts mean saving a lot of time (not having to travel back and forth to the gym). Yes, home workouts are technically convenient. And despite these apparent benefits, a whole lot of people are suddenly struggling with a lack of motivation to work out at all.
I’ve counted myself in with that group before.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been without access to a gym. My old job (in academia) gave me access to a decent spot 9 months out of the year. But that facility, like everything else on campus, closed for 3 separate months between each term. When the first month hit, I swore to myself I’d buy some kettlebells and “get creative” with home workouts. I think I did one session in my tiny studio apartment, hated it, and quickly found a gym with a month-to-month payment option.
I struggled then with what most people are struggling with now – not feeling motivated to work out at home. I had a million reasons why – the workouts weren’t hard enough, I didn’t have enough space, I was limited in what I could do because of my downstairs neighbors. There was clearly something I was getting out of physically being in the gym that I couldn’t get at home. Something about working out in public, with barbells, was rewarding to me.
This is extrinsic motivation – being moved to action (motivated) based on an expected outcome. Imagine a child finishing their vegetables because if they do, they get ice cream. Or even you taking on a new responsibility at work because if you do, you expect you’ll get a raise. In both examples, the motivation comes from the reward. You can also be extrinsically motivated to avoid punishment – cleaning your room as a kid so you didn’t get grounded.
In the case of the gym, part of my reward was the social aspect. I’m a naturally competitive person, so I got something out of secretly trying to lift more (or lift better) than the people around me in the gym. Another part was that I had connected lifting heavy weights with a particular aesthetic, and that was my primary driver for training. If a movement was heavy, it would make me bigger, stronger, and leaner. If it wasn’t heavy, it wouldn’t make a difference, so why would I do it? My habit of working out didn’t stick around as soon as the motivators (competition and looking good) were removed.
But for people that are intrinsically motivated to work out, just doing it is enough! Intrinsic motivation is to be moved to action (again, motivated) by your inherent interest or enjoyment of the activity. An intrinsically motivated lifter enjoys moving weight just for the sake of it. Or learning a new language as an adult for no reason other than pure interest. The pursuit of the activity is its own reward. Those activities and behaviors are naturally going to be more sustainable, since they are always rewarding.
The concept of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation comes from Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory. Their theory states that people are able to become self-determined (read: fulfilled) when their innate needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are met. They assume that humans are naturally oriented towards growth, and that need for growth is rewarding enough to drive behavior. This is where intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation comes in. While of course there are behaviors we are motivated to do for money, status, or fame (outside motivators), there are also behaviors that bring us closer to competence, connection, and autonomy that are rewarding in and of themselves.
In essence: activities that make us feel like we’ve mastered a skill, make us feel like we belong with our peers, and that we feel we have control over are intrinsically motivating.
So what does that mean for us in quarantine? We need to connect the dots between home workouts (or sticking with healthy eating habits, or making the time to call friends and family) and feeling competent, connected, and autonomous. We need to feel that these actions are helping us grow as people.
I’ve had a lot more success this time around with home workouts, and it’s largely because I’ve found motivation through that lens of personal growth. The home workout limitations are still there, but I’ve stuck to a minimum of 3 strength-training sessions each week. The change was in my goals around those training sessions. I’m resistance-training as a way to elevate my heart rate, elevate my mood, and boost my creative exercise-programming skills.
Whereas previously, if I didn’t feel a workout was making me stronger and making my muscles grow, it didn’t seem worth it. Resistance bands are awesome and I recommend everyone get some, but they’re not the same as a heavy barbell. If my only goal right now were to be muscle gains, I’d probably be back to sitting on the couch complaining about how the gym is still closed. However, with the simple goal of breaking a sweat and releasing endorphins, they’re more than adequate! It’s also a weekly challenge to see what movement variations I can come up with using what I have on hand.
It’s all about reframing. How can you look at your home workouts a little bit differently? What are they able to provide you that you don’t necessarily get in the gym?
Now is the time to learn a skill (getting your first push-up perhaps), or try a 30 day plank challenge with your gym friends, or make a commitment to 10 minutes of yoga every day because that is one thing you’re SURE you can do. Find COMPETENCE, CONNECTION, or AUTONOMY. That’s where you’ll find some intrinsic fulfillment.