fitness motivation

Posted 1 year ago

Motivation isn’t black or white

How many times have you been told that “either you’re motivated or you’re not”, or “either you want it bad enough or you don’t”?

Although at times of gruelling perseverance – like the dark days of a contest prep – you feel like this might be true, for most people, most of the time, it’s just a load of BS.

Let me be clear: this isn’t about justifying “excuses” (although I do feel that often this calls upon us to listen a little harder), but it’s about understanding that motivation exists on a SPECTRUM, and as such, should be approached in this same way.

So, if motivation isn’t black or white, then what is it?

Motivation has been studied IN DEPTH in the applied field of exercise/physical activity psychology, and what we know is that there are three broad types of motivation:

  1. No motivation, also known as amotivation
  2. Extrinsic motivation, which is when the pull to do something is driven by external factors
  3. Intrinsic motivation, which is when we pursue an activity for the sake of the activity itself (think of a child who puts a shoe in their mouth, just cos’)

For most of us, motivation to exercise is extrinsically driven, but even here we can sub-divide it though a spectrum which ranges from:

– Doing something to avoid being punished OR to be rewarded (external motivation)
– Doing something to avoid shame/guilt OR to get praise (introjected motivation)
– Doing something because we identify that behaviour as being important to us (identified motivation)
– Doing something because it is in alignment with WHO WE ARE (integrated motivation)

So, as you can see, it’s not as simple as “nobody cares, work harder”: there’s a lot more nuance to motivation than social media would have you believe. And yes, it’s likely that the people you see on social media are motivated to exercise/diet/prep/adhere to the max because it’s part of who they are, it’s tied into their identity, it’s tied into their values, and they cannot separate themselves from that (i.e., their motivation to be consistent with all things fitness is integrated into who they are).

But for a lot of people, especially as they enter the fitness world, when they start their first big dieting phase… it’s not quite there yet, it’s more a matter of recognising diet/exercise/fitness as something important but learning to balance it with other competing demands.

So, if you are struggling with motivation and feel down on yourself because “maybe you don’t want it enough”, take a step back to recognise that there’s more to motivation then “yes or no”. It’s a process, like anything else.

And when there’s a process, there are always things that we can do to get ourselves further along that motivation spectrum, so we can become more motivated. What does the theory tell us?

Basic psychological needs

Just like flowers need water, nutrients, and sunshine to survive, humans also have a set of basic psychological needs that help us thrive in our day-to-day life. These are: autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which I’ll define in depth below.

What the evidence seems to suggest is that when our basic psychological needs are met, we are far more motivated to engage in goal-related behaviour. In the context of developing your physique to become an elite version of yourself, this means that satisfying your BPN increases your likelihood of: adhering to your nutrition (both in a dieting and gaining phase), adhering to your training plan, and ticking off all the other boxes that will help you move that needle forward.

So, how can you increase your own motivation? By seeking out ways to increase the satisfaction of your basic psychological needs.

Autonomy refers to our sense of volition or choice when it comes to working on a goal. It’s easy to see how this relates to being more motivated, because if you’re not doing this for YOU, out of your own VOLITION and because you really WANT to, then sticking to your goal is going to get exponentially harder over time.

Often, people struggle in this area if they’re working with a coach and they feel like they’re trying to achieve a goal that their coach has set out for them, instead of something they’ve chosen to do themselves. The reality is that transforming your body takes a lot of hard work, and if you don’t feel like you’re in it for the right reasons, getting there will be a lot harder. My best advice to increase your sense of autonomy is to spend time identifying: your WHY (and getting crystal clear on this); and your values, because tying your values to your goals will make it a lot more personal and easier to do.

Here’s a link that can help you identify what matters:

As the name suggests, competence relates to your ability to identify whether you can or can’t do something, and to receive feedback on this ability too. This is why dieting to extreme levels might be hardest for those who are doing it for the first time, as they actually don’t know if they have the ability to get there!

As such, given that often this feedback comes from experience, the best thing you can do to increase your sense of competence is to hire a coach. A good coach will be able to provide you with weekly feedback on your progress; they will ensure that they reflect back to you the positive changes they’re seeing both in your physique and your mental progress.

Anyone who has dieted for a photoshoot and/or a show knows that, when you’re deep into prep, your vision and perception of yourself becomes clouded, and you lose touch with the huge improvements you’re making on a weekly basis. Having a coach in your corner whom you can touch base with to “pull your head out of your arse” is invaluable feedback to keep you going. They’ll remind you of how far you’ve come, you’ll feel empowered to keep going, and as such, even if you feel like a zombie, you’ll remain motivated to curb your cravings and keep smashing it at the gym.

Although this sounds like a fancy term, you’ve probably heard it before when I’ve spoken about the importance of surrounding yourself with people who are on a similar journey to yourself. I don’t mean that your whole inner circle should be on the same mission as you (dieting for a show) but having people who are also working on achieving an elite physique can really make or break you when you are lacking in motivation. This is because when you can rely on the social support of a team or know that you are representing a team through the work that you’re doing, the meaningfulness of the work at hand increases: it’s no longer about you, it’s about them too, it’s about all of us.

These are some of the main reasons why at VW Physique we created group chats for all of our clients to connect both through WhatsApp and social media; it’s also why our motto is “we are them, we are us”. We understand that when you’re a part of something bigger, motivation is higher too.

Of course, this isn’t all that goes into taking action – I always say that relying on motivation per se is not guaranteed to get you results, because it does fluctuate. However, one of those reliable systems you can develop to maintain that motivation is to ensure your basic psychological needs are being met (or seek out ways to do so). Moving from identified to integrated motivation takes time, but that is exactly how we’re able to do what is required of us to achieve an elite physique.

If long-term motivation is getting in the way of you achieving your goals, get in touch today to find out how I blend my knowledge as an exercise psychologist (in training) with my coaching to help my clients achieve the results they want.

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS


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