Why Getting Fit Isn’t the Best Exercise Motivation (and 10 Better Reasons to Move Today)

We’re told time and again that in order to get healthy we need to let go of our “lower” instincts (e.g. conserving energy on the couch or preferring to go out and have fun) and embrace future goals. We need to take things seriously – have concrete objectives and clear steps to execute them. It’s about getting down to business and whipping ourselves into shape through the grit of sweat and discipline. Or?

Sure, a proclivity to plan for the future and to favor self-control over momentary whim, research shows, will get us far on the health front (PDF).

It’s hands down the best mindset when we have emotional access to that “higher” self. The stubborn truth is, I’ve never met someone who could maintain this every day. Most days I get bored of it myself in all honesty.

Like it or not, research has shown that health isn’t an effective incentive for most people to consistently exercise. In fact, people whose primary aim for exercise is health or weight loss end up investing the least time actually following through.

So, if the typical rationales aren’t the most effective or reliable motivators, then what is? According to the research, we tend to be better off finding our initiative in the “affective outcome expectations” – the attitudinal and perceived benefits to our lives. To put it simply, if it makes us feel better on some level, we’re more likely to follow through.

In keeping with this pattern, the more immediate the perceived benefit, the more powerful and influential it is on our behavior. The same short-term gratification that gets blasted as our health’s worst enemy can actually be harnessed for good. Go figure…maybe our primary instincts don’t always have to drive us into the ditch.

In that spirit, let me throw out 10 short-term incentives for getting one’s duff off of the couchor office chair. Forget all about your blood pressure or cancer risk or cardiovascular conditioning. Forget the term body fat or the principles of metabolic functioning. What matters in this list is the here and now – same-day benefits if you will.

  1. You’ll come away from a single workout with better attentional processing, working memory (PDF) and motor memory.
  2. You’ll enjoy a brighter mood and less anxiety for the next few hours – even if you keep it simple with a slow jog or a brief walk outdoors.
  3. Can anyone say post-workout glow – with all the compliments that come with it?
  4. You’ll be able to “walk off” or get some distance from whatever emotional stress is zapping your mental energy.
  5. If you’re like subjects of one study, you’ll experience a significant boost to your body image after just one resistance training session. (Note: a single bout of cardio training didn’t offer the same enhancement.)
  6. You’ll have more self-control – and higher brain function – after a workout thanks to the enhanced blood and oxygen flow to the pre-frontal cortex.
  7. A single workout can offer hypoalgesic effects (temporary pain relief) for those who experience chronic pain.
  8. A bout of exercise primes you for sexual arousal post-workout. Just sayin’.
  9. Finally, according to one study on sedentary women (who had not been diagnosed with insomnia like sample groups in a previously publicized study), you may sleep better even after a single bout of moderate exercise.
  10. Bonus: how about just having fun? Can we dare to drop the interest in physical benefits period and just go out and have a good time with an active pick-up game of whatever sport we enjoy or a competitive run or a some MovNat inspired antics that make the neighbors stare?

Seriously, sometimes the best motivation is the seemingly most rudimentary or even irrelevant. Move around the ways that offer you the most fun and excitement – and forget the rest. Happy primate equals healthy primate. How much more Primal can it get?

What does your daily motivation look like when it comes to fitness? Are you more of a goal-oriented person, or do short-term incentives work better for you? Share your thoughts on the board, and thanks for reading, everyone. Have a good end to the week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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41 thoughts on “Why Getting Fit Isn’t the Best Exercise Motivation (and 10 Better Reasons to Move Today)”

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  1. One of the immediate benefits I got from bike rides with my son is the smile on my face didn’t easily fall off…… Who knows if it was riding through the woods, the beauty, the exercise, the cute face that kept turning around to say “isn’t this fun?” the whole time, but I did notice that I was smiling enough to feel the “burn” in my face muscles.

  2. All well and good but I have always hated exercise or physical exertion. There has never been a scintilla of pleasure in it ever. No afterglow. No enjoyment. Period. End of discussion. Zip. Zelch. Zero. Nada. None. Got it? A big nothing. Liking exercise is to me an extreme bizarre mental disorder that I fortunately avoided completely. And psychologically I prefer to lose on my own than win on a team. I am just not cut out of any of that cloth. Team sports? Gawd how boring. Me running for seven miles? Even more boring. What I DO like and why I DO exercise is that most guys my age look like crap. I don’t. I look good in a tight shirt and shorts, or on the beach or a nudist colony. And I still have my mojo. Most guys my age can only muster feminine farts let alone LIVE! Younger women don’t go to bed with me but they know they could. I’m not automatically written off by age. My doctor is speechless because I eat so “badly” and test so well. That’s why I exercise. That motivates me. I like it when someone says — and they often do — I thought you were twenty or thirty years younger. One of these days “oldness” will be forced upon me, until then I will be young. Exercise does that. And that is why I exercise seven days a week. I hate it, but I like what it does for me.

      1. Honest, yes. Good?
        He works out to sleep with younger women. He has an addiction, don’t glorify it.

        1. He said they could, not that they do. And why are you demonizing sex between two consenting adults? Why would you say its an addiction?

  3. Exercise is my anti anxiety medication. It will always be the #1 reason why I workout consistently. When I have to take a few days off for whatever reason – I get all grumpypants.

  4. I hate team sports! If I could, I would do without exercising every day, but I can’t. The reason why I do it now, is the bad example my parents set, and I don’t want to end up like them. I was close to having to take meds because of my lifestyle, and I just dodged that bullet by changing it.
    I want to be strong enough, and to be able to take care of myself when I’m older (50 now). I don’t want to be bed ridden like my great grandmother, and grandmother were for 20 years before I die.
    So being healthy and fit is what keeps me motivated, and the fear of what could be if I don’t keep moving.

  5. Lifting heavy weight makes me feel strong. It also makes me look good. I take a look at many guys my age and even much younger and I cringe at the thought of having a big belly and flabby chest. That alone motivates me to work out. I don’t want to grow old and soft. Some day it will come but not now. Not when I can do something about it.

  6. Personally, I find exercise fun. I have a job where I have to sit much of the day. Getting up and lifting heavy weight, hitting the rowing machine, or even a long ride on a stationary bike feels like I am doing something. Like I am using the tools I have. Now I personally, would never, ever, ever play a team sport again or for that matter do any the things that most people would consider fun. I spent 20 years as a competitive athlete, having team mates cheering (yelling) at me, coaches barking at me, having people get in my way. I am done with that crap! I just do my lifts, finish with some rowing sprints, go home or do some distance on the bike and go home. I feel great and feel like I accomplished something.

  7. For me, by far the biggest motivator is whatever results I’m getting from what I’m doing. There’s just something about watching your pull-ups get better, your squats get stronger, and your body looking and feeling better.The obvious problem with this is that you need to put in time first to see these results, but this post does a great job of providing short term incentives until you can start seeing your own positive results and continuing to build your own personal motivation for exercise.

  8. I think about how much longer, faster, better I can ride my mountain bike. Insert your own personal sport.

  9. Was so excited to share this post with a particular client of mine–aligned beautifully with an area of exploration that really opened things up for him this past month, so far as changing his relationship to daily movement and making something “he just does.”

    When we started working together, this client HATED exercise (still refuses to use that word). Now, after a few months of working on movement and eating, he moves his body daily—in ways that feel good, doable, nourishing and supportive.

    A key piece in this shift toward integrating movement in his daily routine was letting go of “should’s” and “have to’s”…and letting go of weight loss or even overall health as motivating factors.

    He has lost weight (23 lbs) and is definitely healthier. But these happened naturally, as he gave himself space to explore his patterns and integrate movement and primal eating in a way that felt organic and sustainable.

  10. I think there is a lack of understanding about just how amazing feeling good, energetic, pain free is. I tell people, and I am not really joking, if you are lazy this is the best lifestyle ever. No doctor visits, medicine, aches and pains, just so much easier to live and much better for enjoyment.

    I think Grok was not out running marathons or doing chronic cardio or even Crossfit. And I don’t do any of that either. But he was energetic and playful probably his entire life. And certainly ready to play. And he had to move a lot (walking, lift heavy things, sprint).

    There is no couch potato gene or anything we have to ‘fight’. Now you do get wiped out being a carb burner and also sick and so nutrient deficient that you really don’t have energy because your mitochondria are all sick.

    But it is total nonsense we have to fight being lazy or a couch potato.

    What it comes down to is people have no idea how great it feels to be healthy and how EASY it is when you look at things holistically.

    Eating processed food makes life SO DIFFICULT. Anxiety, pain, depression. Pain sucks. I had some pain recently and I realized I am pain free for months or years at a time now. Other people deal with it daily or multiple times a day.

    Now that is hard. And it SUCKS.

  11. My main motivation for moving more than absolutely necessary is that I love my food more than I hate exercise. It enables me to have that extra potato or whatever and still maintain a weight I’m happy with. Oh and it gives me a level of fitness that enables me to run for a train if needs be!

  12. Hmm, did someone recently read Michelle Segar’s No Sweat? If not, you should as this is exactly what the entire book is about — the motivation behind exercise/fitness. Seriously great stuff. (My immediate reward as a 49 year old woman? Strength and flexibility. I want to be able to lift heavy things and not make that noise — you know the one — when I get up and down off the floor. Or a chair, even.)

    1. No sweat. Sounds like my kind of book. I try to move more than I ever have. But I always say I don’t like exercise that makes me sweat or breath hard. I’m all about long walks, swimming and yoga. Need more lifting heavy things as I head toward 50.

  13. I find it hard to start,”OK, so I have to exercise, here we go, damn”. However, I get going, I do five more squats than last session, more sets the next, wow improvement. Then there is the reward of Breakfast, Three eggs and some bacon a cup of buttered coffee, man that’s livin. Then there comes the weekend hikes. My wife used to kick my ass up a trail, not any more. I think I’m even kicking ass on my cancer,(numbers are improving too:) . Every week I see improvement, every day I feel just a little bit stronger. I like it when I have a hard time lifting car keys after a work out, I like looking better, I really like feeling better.That is the motivator for me.
    At the very least, life is more enjoyable, and will leave a much better looking corpse.

    1. Thank you for the motivational reasons Mark! People who are able to get to the gym frequently in consistent basis sure have it’s own kind of motivations! Nobody can push us unless we find our own sustainable reasons and feelings that we want to achieve and addicted to it, then only one will automatically push themselves to do it and make it happen automatically!

  14. Before I lost 100 lbs my motivation was to stop being made fun of at school. As I got older my motivation turned to picking up girls. As I roared through my 20’s I was full of piss and vinegar. My motivation was still to pick up girls but also to be the Alpha amongst my friends and other males. Its funny how things change when you get older. My motivation today is my son. I want to set a good example. “Every father should remember his kids will follow is example instead of his advice.” Great post Mark. Cheers

  15. Most of these are true for me, but there’s another biggie not listed here, health-related and yet not long-term but quite immediate. . . ahem, keeping the system moving nice and regular, as it were. I find this a great contribution to how good I feel from day to day. Surely I’m not the only one?

  16. I flat out love exercise – walking, running, lifting, cycling, swimming – it is my primary hobby and I do something everyday and look forward to it. I love how it makes me feel and look (and have no problem being vain about it). And I’ve always been that way since childhood now at the age of 48. I have my dad to thank for that – I modeled his behavior from a very young age watching him go running, lift weights and play basketball. Amazing what an imprint it made on me as a child. And he kept at it in fact winning his age group at 76 years old in the Daytona 1/2 marathon last year! Just following suit, a chip off the old block.

  17. Maybe “we” are going about it all wrong? The thought of “go get some exercise” means something you have to squeeze in somewhere, almost like a mandatory penalty, something negative. What if people were encouraged to just “go out and play “? Sounds like a much more fun approach with very similar results.
    A key for a lot of people could be to just find a way to move every day that they enjoy, instead of guilting them into something they hate doing.

  18. I exercise to lower my pain level. i have severe hypermobility and artritis (I am 35). I haven’t been able to motivate myself with health benefits or looking better, but less pain was an effective motivator.

  19. After many years of training to recover from a crippling disease and obesity, I’ve discovered that it’s such an engrained part of my habit-stricken soul that I start to anticipate the next session only moments after I’ve finished one. In the beginning, it was desparately hard, and easy to seek the exit door. I found my conviction to keep going in the love I have for the people who really need me in this world.

    Thanks for keeping good motivators out there for your tribe, Mark!

    Memo Stephens

  20. I love my midday exercise break! Very straightforward motivation too, if I don’t do it my body lets me know because I get tense and sore standing at a computer all day. I also get a huge charge out of upping the weight or the reps, disconnect from stress of work, and get into a zen state focusing on the moment instead of trying to manage a hundred little details in the future.

  21. Often, I feel too tired or down in the evening to go to my tennis group. But once I’m there I always have such a good time. I forget about my tiredness and leave feeling energized.

  22. I’ve always hated anything that makes me sweat or out of breath.

    I exercise so I can feel strong and capable, and because I want to be able to pick up my nephew for as long as I possibly can 🙂
    Also, I wanna LGN 😉

  23. I like to workout!
    It is not a big deal, 30 minutes doing a nice workout (many of them based on the WOWs posted in this site), for next Monday holiday it will be a session with sledgehammers in the beach. Beach yoga … aaaaaah
    Sprint sessions I like, I have been improving my times

  24. I applaud you in creating this post. There is a whole other world apart from the cosmetic results and competitive bragging rights world of “health”; the world of a quality life. For some that makes no sense, but I know that there is a world of people today who have always believed there was something far better than the highly segmented world of “exercise”. Thanks for being a voice for us.

  25. Functional Fitness and aesthetics are motivation for me.
    Also, there is something satisfying about being fit enough to do pushups, pullups, run, lift things. FItness enables me to do things I like to do. Good to know that exercise will enable me to not be bedridden in my old age, live normally without being physically dependent on anyone, drive my car, walk up and down stairs, buy things from the market

  26. I love to do exercise . I love how it connects me to certain friends and to my dad. I talk about fitness because fitness is a hobby of mine just like everybody talks about their hobbies and the things that occupy their time. I have never once valued fitness as a hobby that is superior or more important than anything else.
    nice blog

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