Here's why you can't sustain your motivation to work out, according to experts

Friday, November 13, 2020 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

How does one stay motivated to stay fit and go to the gym?

Ah, the million-dollar question. Ten days ago on Instagram, I broached the subject of why it may be problematic to simply keep pushing oneself during workouts whenever one feels demotivated. While pushing through lazy moments may work, it might be a band-aid solution that would stop working one day. It may also breed a plethora of mental health problems, such as self-esteem issues, disordered eating, and paradoxically, compulsive exercising as a way to purge after undisciplined moments.

And this is where science saves the day once again!

failed barbell squat

Not all motivation is created equal. If you've been trying to troubleshoot lazy days without really knowing what Self-Determination Theory is, then you might be missing out on vital information!

Self-determination: A Theory

According to the Self-Determination Theory mentioned in the 1985 book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, there is a spectrum of self-determination that reveals how motivated we are and why. From our least to most motivated moments, we go through the following phases.


Here, one experiences no motivation.

External regulation

One's actions are determined not by self-determination but by psychological pressure (e.g., the need to win a contest for some reason, the need to get the cash prize due to financial problems, the desire not to get punished if one loses).

Introjected regulation

This is the same as external regulation in that the actions are driven not by self-determination but by pressure, except the pressure is internal, not external (one feels guilty if they don't push through, one feels bad if they don't win).

Identified regulation

One's actions are self-determined (the person feels motivated), but they are not enjoyed (e.g., doing drills that a runner must finish but considers tedious; finishing specific accessory lifts that a powerlifter doesn't particularly enjoy).

Integrated regulation

One's actions are also self-determined, but they are already incorporated into one's idea of who they are (e.g., a runner realizes that doing drills is part of staying in top shape, hence it becomes a habit).

Intrinsic motivation

This type of motivation is easy to sustain and is also known as full self-determination. This makes us want to get up in the morning – we can't wait; we are excited, we love what we do!

We can be intrinsically motivated to gain three things: to gain knowledge, to gain a sense of accomplishment, or to gain interesting experiences.

Research shows that getting motivated intrinsically usually means matching our skills and interests to the activity we want. Too easy, and a workout becomes boring; too hard, and it becomes demoralizing.

How do we stay self-determined?

It is easy for one to feel lazy if one stays externally regulated alone instead of intrinsically motivated. There are many ways to become intrinsically motivated to work out, including finding an activity that one resonates with instead of sticking to what others do just because everybody else does it. There are many types of physical activities, such as rock climbing, boxing, yoga, weightlifting, and powerlifting, so don't limit yourself to simply running on a treadmill or doing HIIT classes just because "they get the job done"!

How else do we slide along the self-determination spectrum towards intrinsic motivation in physical fitness? And what's the highest form of intrinsic motivation (believe me, you've experienced this at least once in your life, and there's even a word for it)?

Watch this space as I post science-backed answers very soon! Meanwhile, catch more research-based information on fitness by searching for the hashtag #StrongStefSays on my Instagram.

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!