Motivation How do we get and stay involved in physical activities?

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This article was edited and updated on December 18, 2021.

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"There is now overwhelming evidence that regular physical activity has wide-ranging health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers; enhanced function and preservation of function with age; and the delaying of cognitive decline." (Professor Steven N. Blair 2)

We don't need more research. We do need to know our own bodies better.

Recently I ran into some former colleagues whom I hadn't seen in years. They had travelled a great deal — cruises to Europe and the Caribbean and to Alaska — but exercise has not been a part of their daily routine. When I told them that I taught four fitness classes a week they responded with, "We walk a lot." It is the most common answer I hear — an almost apologetic justification for why they don't spend more time taking care of themselves.

It would seem that people who don't exercise have the same mindset as those who choose to smoke, drink more than they should, or live a risky lifestyle — all in the face of obvious research that says these things will kill you sooner rather than later. People need to be more knowledgeable about their own body, how it works, and the crucial need to remain independent and healthy for as long as it is possible to do so.

The research is already there in spades — exercise will curtail or even prevent many illnesses and diseases. We even know — also from research — what types of exercise are best. Although walking is great, it is not enough. We must be life-long learners and educate ourselves about our own body and health. It is easy to find answers: in books, the internet, numerous articles, magazines, and the public library.

If people educated themselves — to their bodies, to their health, to the benefits of exercise — would they be more determined to get in 2-3 exercise sessions a week? I would hope so.

Think of exercise like a doctor's prescription: refills mandatory!

Professor Steven N. Blair of the Department of Exercise Science and Epidemiology at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, tells us that “physical inactivity is one of the most important public health problems of the 21st century.” 3 Obviously, this comment was made before Covid-19 came on the scene, but being healthy is also going to make it easier for you to fight off a virus.

Professor Blair made this statement after completing his research which tried to determine how much regular physical activity improves our health….at any age. His results were published in an edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Both active and inactive people and their death rates and causes of death were studied. The researchers found that, even in the cases of persons with various conditions (such as hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease), those who exercised lived longer and felt better than those who didn’t.

Professor Blair concluded his research by saying 4:

"There is now overwhelming evidence that regular physical activity has wide-ranging health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers; enhanced function and preservation of function with age; and the delaying of cognitive decline."

Despite what we know, why do we miss our exercise session?

We know that we should exercise. We may go to bed promising ourselves that tomorrow we will do better: we will take that run, we will not eat that cookie, we will attend that fitness class.

When tomorrow comes, somehow "life" gets in the way: an errand has to be run, a phone call has to be made, an appointment must be kept, a friend needs your help. Even just staying in bed and not getting up seems easier than fulfilling any promises we made to ourselves to "do better." All of these things — or just one of these things — can sabotage our best intentions. 5

And perhaps one of the more interesting ironies of life: those who are altruistic and willing to volunteer to help others are less likely to help themselves.

Most people know that exercise will help them to be independent longer, yet many do not establish a regular routine of exercise.

For most older adults, a lack of self-motivation is the most frequently cited barrier (Brittain and colleagues, 2002). This fits in well with the first reason listed below: an inability to see the long-term results.

The other reasons people may skip or never start physical activities are:

Even if we are attending class, are we meeting a worthwhile goal? Is our goal to "just make it there"?

"Too often we put so much emphasis on the specific behaviour that we lose sight of the overall goal: to create a lifelong experience that will provide an opportunity to improve our health and quality of life." 6

How do we keep the long-term goals in mind? How do we motivate ourselves?

Step 1: Set your goals based on your expectations

Research suggests that if we set goals, and reward ourselves when we achieve them, we may be more likely to continue those activities.

What do you want exercise to do for you? Improve your health or fitness level? Get you ready for Vancouver’s next marathon? Or do you just want to be able to remain independent in order to do daily chores and activities? Once you know your expectations, you're ready to set goals. 7

Based on your expectations, your goals should be:

Here are some suggested exercise goals, and remember that you can have more than one at the same time:

Step 2: Monitor Your Goals

Research has shown that participants who engage in self-monitoring are more likely to permanently change their habits.

Here are some ways you can monitor your goals:

Step 3: Reward yourself

Reinforcement can help us to reach our goals. But how often should you reward yourself and what is a suitable reward? No easy answers here, partly because only you know what reward will motivate you. Rewards should be frequent enough to motivate you, but not so frequent that they become a burden. As well, of course, be cautious not to over-indulge and in the process destroy what you have accomplished.

Some possible rewards are:

Step 4: Promote Long-Term Adherence

If you perceive exercise as important, you are more likely to be successful and persistent. The Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991) suggests that a person’s intention to be consistently physically active is based on their expected outcomes.

Participants usually succeed if they have:

Several factors contribute to success for those who exercise regularly. They are:


Fitness is a lifetime goal — a routine that you want to have as a part of your daily life. Setbacks can and do occur, but don't let a setback become a permanent "solution" because not exercising is no solution at all.

If you have found a particular successful way of motivating yourself, please share your thoughts with me.

See also:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎

  2. Dr. Blair is the head of the Department of Exercise Science and Epidemiology at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina. ↩︎

  3. Source for this study: Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 44(2):163, March-April 2007) ↩︎

  4. Blair’s introductory comments will lead you to other articles. Or go to the magazine itself. Some articles are free to download; you can download the abstracts of others. An edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine devoted 18 articles to this topic. They were written by “an outstanding group of scientists and clinicians” and the articles “provide the background and rationale for giving more attention to physical activity in clinical and public health settings.” ↩︎

  5. Go to any internet search engine and look up something like "why do we neglect ourselves when we help others?" and you will find numerous articles on the topic. ↩︎

  6. From the textbook, The BEST Exercise Program for Osteoporosis Prevention↩︎

  7. Some of the ideas for this article came from the text, Physical Activity Instruction of Older Adults by Jessie Jones and Debra J. Rose, published by Human Kinetics, 2005. ↩︎