Exercise motivation: Four ways to find your 'why'

How to tap into your most personal goals to help you get in shape!

Woman working out on beach


When you’re in the back row of your first Zumba class missing steps, sweating hard, having a difficult time keeping up, and generally feeling out of place, you may ask yourself, “Why am I here?”

When you’ve developed all new levels of loathing for your trainer because she’s pushed you to do so many lunges your legs have transformed into carbon-based bags of pain, you may ask yourself, “Why did I hire this person to torture me?”

Those are good questions. Now you need answers to those “whys”. Let me tell you about my “why.”

My website is called Body for Wife, and there is more truth to that title than I care to admit. I was an out-of-shape 25-year-old dating a woman light years out of my league. Before proposing I thought it might be a good idea if I offered considerably less of me, gravitationally speaking, when I gave her a modest-sized, sparkly little rock and asked her to put up with me forevermore. So I busted my ass for almost a year losing fat and building muscle before proposing. It worked. She said “yes.” True story.

Of course, during the process I actually learned to love exercise and that’s how/why I’ve kept at it for so long, but I do get a kick out of looking good for my wife, and I think she’s appreciated my efforts these last 18 years. Vanity is a popular and powerful motivator for fitness, but as I aged, and started running, I began to think more about health and performance. Now I like to think I give vanity, health and performance all equal weight as my long-term goals, and I exercise and eat in a manner that makes all three mutually inclusive.

Get rid of excuses
“People say they’re too old, they’ve failed before. They blame their genetics, they say they don’t have time,” says former bodybuilder, Sandra Beuckert, owner of One-on-One Fitness. “Some people have had a blow to their self esteem when it comes to fitness. Sometimes it was overbearing parents; mean girls, the gym teacher back in high school, a mother who was constantly dieting. People carry baggage that is a ghost of fitness past.”

Perhaps the most telling thing, Beuckert explains is, “Deep down a lot of people feel like they don’t deserve to be fit. We undermine ourselves and think we’re going to fail before we start. If you think failure is a forgone conclusion, then it is.”

Beuckert believes the most important part of getting in shape is to ditch the exercise baggage and start believing you deserve to take the time to get in shape. Make your motivation less about vanity and more about sanity, “It’s about aging well.”

Find your “why” by defining what fitness means to you
“What is the deep, meaningful goal that resonates to your core? Is it a black dress or running a race? Step aside from what people are telling you and chase what it is you’re really after,” urges Beuckert. Figure out what YOU really want to get out of this. I’ve got one client who wants to qualify for the Boston Marathon, another who wants to get her “glow” back, and one who just wants to be able to walk without pain. Everyone is an individual. Everyone has their own ‘why’.

Don’t let the scale define you
Beuckert likens the scale to an abusive boyfriend. “He sits in the corner and tells people they’re fat.” She explains women often look externally for validation. When the scale (or boyfriend) doesn’t tell them what they want to hear it “sets a negative tone for the whole day.” Don’t let the scale trash your fitness motivation.

Strive for pleasure
One important incentive to keep in mind when starting a new exercise program is the desire to get good at it. When you focus on improving at a sport, whether yoga, cycling, running, weightlifting, swimming, skiing or something else, this not only gets you better results and boosts self-esteem, but it makes you enjoy the activity. And if you enjoy it, you’ll keep doing it.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.