My goal is to exercise more. I am not training for a marathon nor do I need to lose weight. Exercising regularly simply feels good.

The difference is small but noticeable; it’s something that compounds over time to dramatically affect my quality of life. As with most things, consistency is key. Although exercising for a week is a good start, it has little long-term benefit to health or psychological functioning.

We live in a world of instant feedback, quick fixes, and information overload. Time is scarce so we develop “life hacks” to make things easier. This type of thinking may increase work productivity or help you organize your closet, but is less effective with activities, such as exercise, that require a consistent time investment.

So how do we maintain the motivation to exercise—not just for a month or two, but for a lifetime? Research has found that few lifestyle choices have as great an impact on health as physical activity. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, regular exercise is an effective way to manage weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, improve mental health, and has numerous other benefits.         

Each person is motivated differently. However, there are some scientifically validated techniques that may help you find the motivation needed to pursue a more active lifestyle.

Belief systems

“I am not a very active person and never will be.” According to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, this statement reflects a fixed mindset or a belief that your basic qualities or talents remain static. But decades of research show how the belief that talent, rather than effort, leads to success is false: people who adopt a growth mindset understand that effort, hard work, and perseverance are greater predictors of future success than current traits or abilities. Applying a growth mindset to new activities is motivating because it suggests we can all make meaningful changes in our lives by simply putting in the effort. Living a sedentary lifestyle today does not necessarily mean you will be doing the same a month from now. The past does not dictate the future, but our ability to apply ourselves does.  

Tapping into innate psychological needs  

Scientists have found that people are motivated by three universal psychological needs: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. When satisfied, these needs enhance self-motivation. But, when obstructed, they lead to diminished motivation and wellbeing. According to this theory of motivation, people are able to actualize their inherent potential when a social environment supports these basic psychological needs. So how can we apply these principles to increase our physical activity? Let’s begin with competence.

Competence refers to our innate desire to experience mastery—as humans, we are motivated when we feel we have the ability to achieve desired outcomes. Mastery can be increased by setting small sustainable goals, like committing to a lunchtime walk twice a week. Meeting this goal several times will help you build the confidence needed to achieve more ambitious goals in the future.

Another way to experience mastery is by choosing physical activities that suit your level of fitness. If exercise is not part of your routine, vowing to visit the gym five days a week will likely be short lived. Consistency is key, so start small and allow exercise to become part of your daily routine. Make exercise fun by choosing activities you enjoy. If you dislike the gym, don’t go—instead, pick an activity like swimming, kayaking, dance class, etc. You are far more likely to stick with goals that are suited to your personal interests and needs.

In addition to feeling competent, humans are motivated by a universal need to interact and connect with others. According to the Self-Determination Theory, activities that provide opportunities for connection foster internal motivation. Internal motivation involves doing an activity for the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself rather than to attain some separable outcome or reward, for instance, increasing physical activity levels because you value taking care of your body rather than, say, losing 10 pounds before a special event. Connecting with others who have similar goals and values is an effective way to increase motivation. Try exercising with others. Meet a friend for a walk or attend a yoga class together. Make exercising with friends part of your social calendar.

In addition to competence and relatedness, humans have a universal need for autonomy that, when satisfied, increases motivation. Autonomy refers to the satisfaction that comes from being in control of one’s life and acting in harmony with personal values and desires. You are most likely to feel motivated to exercise when you have chosen to do so yourself—not because someone told you to, but because it is something you inherently value. Living an active lifestyle because you feel in control of your life and are inspired to align your actions and values supports sustainable lifestyle change. Next time you set a goal, whether exercise-related or not, consider integrating these techniques. You may find the gradual process of lifestyle change a little more effective.