Don’t Feel Like Going to the Gym? Science Says Try This To Get Motivated

Updated: Jul. 26, 2022

Why is it so hard to build motivation to work out? Science explains exactly why (hint: we’re born to be lazy)—and how to find yours once and for all. 


Why can’t I get the motivation to workout? 

Whether you’ve invested in a gym pass or the latest at-home workout equipment, every plan for a new exercise routine starts with the best intentions. But if your new treadmill is quickly turning into a coat rack, you’re not alone. Just look at the hashtag #workoutmotivation on Instagram and there’s nearly 22 million posts people turn to for inspiration to finally get those sweat sessions started. After all, we all know how critical exercise is for our health—and it goes beyond that motivation to fit into your skinny jeans

An article published in Frontiers in Psychology lays out exactly how beneficial it is to overcome this initial hurdle. The researchers note how breaking past the motivation barrier works to boost your sense of self-efficacy, competence, autonomy, and confidence in creating social environments. Still, Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman explains why that motivation is so hard to attain: being a couch potato is actually hard-wired into our evolution. In an article for Harvard Magazine he explains how, for our ancestors, any sort of excess movement was a waste of valuable calories. For most of human history, the motivation to exercise was maladaptive. 

Today’s more sedentary lifestyles paint a different picture. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, low motivation for physical activity is tied to rising rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. That’s why researchers are now looking at how we can overcome this genetically-ingrained laziness to get our bodies moving.  Learn why psychologists say that exercising with a partner can up your workout motivation even more.

How to build your exercise motivation

Katherine Milkman, associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, coined a term that aims to turn motivation into habit. And it’s a concept you may already use in other areas of your life. “Temptation building” means linking something you need to do together with something you want to do. According to Milkman’s theory, this practice incentivizes us to develop valuable, healthy behaviors while reducing guilt and wasted time from otherwise indulgent behaviors. 

So, how does it work? Research published in a 2020 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes explains it like this: bundling things you should do with things you want to do satisfies our craving for instant gratification, improving our adherence to those should behaviors. For example, if you treat yourself to something sweet when sitting down to study, having this temptation closely linked with the task means you’re more likely to find the motivation to tackle it again and again. 

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Here’s the science. Along with another Wharton professor Kevin Volpp and a Harvard Kennedy School professor Julia Minson, Milkman conducted an experiment with students as participants. Each student claimed that they wanted to exercise more, but lacked motivation. The researchers split the participants into three groups. Participants in the first group had an iPod full of audio books they could only access while at the gym, while the second group had the audio books loaded onto their personal devices, meaning they could access them as they pleased. The third group (the control group) were simply given a $25 gift card and encouraged to exercise more. (It’s not a $25 gift card, but here are more self-motivation quotes to help you achieve your goals.)

By the end of the eight-week long study, those in the first group attended the gym 51 percent more than the control group and 29 percent more than the second group. “We find that attendance rates increased meaningfully and significantly with access to the temptation bundling program, suggesting that temptation bundling creates value,” the researchers explain. What that means is that when people’s access to temptation was restricted to gym-only periods, they were more likely to workout. (Don’t have a gym membership? Check out this list of personal trainer-approved home gym essentials.) 

The takeaway here is that by linking the things that you enjoy to those tasks in your life you struggle to find motivation to do, you can change your lifestyle. If you’ve been looking for a little motivation in your life, you might just have found it.

And to get you started, here are some resistance band exercises a trainer promises deliver killer results.

Keep your motivation flowing with daily health and wellness updates from The Healthy on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Get even more exercise inspiration here:

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest