‘Motivation in Exercise, or ‘Come on baby, light my fire’.

This is an article I wrote for the Algonquin Fitness Zone newsletter.  (Memberships at excellent rates, only $130 for four months for full-time Algonquin students.  Get ’em while they’re hot!)  I should point out that it is also this month’s front page article, but I’m reallllllly humble, so I won’t do that.

As I sat there it was minus 20 degrees outside… minus 31 with the wind-chill.  My couch was comfortable and warm.  It whispered seductively in my ear… ”stay home!”  The cold wind blasted against the window.  It screamed at me… “Stay home!”   A moment of uncertainty followed as I weighed my options.  Then a deep breath was followed by a long sigh and leaving my indecision behind, I stood up, bid my uber-comfy temptress goodbye, grabbed my warmest toque and headed towards the door.  I was going to the gym.

As I crossed the threshold of the doorway, bundled up like I was going to spend a month in the Arctic, I started to wonder about what had gotten me out the door.  What is the difference between doing it and not doing it?  What provided the spark?

The answer ofcourse, is motivation.  Motivation is the force that drives us, that spurs us, that urges us on to greater things.  It is also arguably THE most important component of any training regime.  You can have the time, the knowledge, the equipment and everything else, but if you don’t want it bad enough to actually do it, you’ve got nothing.

So, where does it come from?  How do you get it?  Can you buy it in a bottle?? Sadly… no.  It is trickier than that because different people are motivated by different things, so what might light my fuse might not work for you.  Still, a good starting point is to try and figure out what motivates you.

Social Needs Theory

Psychologist David McClelland suggests in his Social Needs theory that individuals are motivated by three different basic needs; achievement, power and affiliation.  The type of motivation that we lean towards is a product of our upbringing and experiences and most of us actually exhibit a mix of the three.

A person dominated by a need for achievement likes to accomplish things and is most successful when their program has goal-setting incorporated into it. They are also often motivated by competition, both against themselves and others.  Often they gear their training around events such as bodybuilding competitions or triathalons.

Individuals who are predominantly motivated by power have a need to be influential and are motivated by prestige and recognition.  This type of person may enjoy being seen as the fittest, biggest, strongest, or most dedicated person at the gym.  They can be more focused on the end result than the process of getting there.  This is the most dubious of the three types of motivation as it involves not only the person themselves but their impressions of and the attitudes of the people around them.

Those who are motivated by affiliation enjoy being a part of something.  They know that all the coolest people are at the gym and they want to be there and be part of that too.  For them to be most successful in their training they have to find ways to take advantage of that.  This person might consider joining a team or doing a fitness class.  They might also do well with a workout partner as their responsibility to each other and the ‘team’ would help keep them committed!

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

A discussion of motivation wouldn’t be complete without considering intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.  An example of extrinsic motivation would be promising to buy yourself a new pair of sneakers if you stick with your workout plan for a certain period of time or reach a certain goal.  This is perfectly fine but will probably only be viable for short-term goals.  At a certain point your motivation needs to come from somewhere deeper.

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand comes in the form of the positive feelings you have when you work hard, achieve goals, etc.  While a new pair of Nikes is an awesome prospect, the feeling that comes from sticking with your workouts and achieving your fitness goals will last long after your sneaks are in the trash!


The information in this article is by no means exhaustive.  Rather they are some bits and pieces intended to make you more aware and give you a starting point for further discovery (more information is only a Google away!).  At the end of the day, the best motivational tool is whatever gets you active and keeps you that way.   So try some different things, see what works and go with it.  And if anybody wants to motivate me by buying me some new sneaks, feel free!


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