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Your Science-Based Guide to Exercise Motivation

Updated: Apr 29

exercise motivation

You are hardwired to be motivated to be healthy. You can trust that fact—it’s how you survive and thrive. What blocks this natural motivation is when the parts of your whole person are working against each other. This fragmentation is not innate; it is learned through our cultural approaches and mindset about motivation.

grow sustainable exercise motivation

This Science-Based Guide to Motivation shows you the essence of creating positive habits for exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress. You clarify the tools for realigning the four parts of your whole person to tap into this natural motivation to do The Big Three: exercise, eat healthy, and manage stress.

Rethink healthy habits

The synergy of motivation, movement, and mindfulness sciences from The Be Well Now Method simplifies being motivated for exercise. The information in this guide will allow you to see clearly how to cut through the messages that make motivation a struggle and use whole person science-based skills for getting and staying motivated by exercising for thriving every day.

whole person approach to exercise motivation

Guided by Inside: the foundation for exercise motivation

Your spirit is the part of you that knows how you specifically thrive. You have a unique array of activities, people, and topics that light you up and give you energy. Like the roots of a tree, this feeds your ability to be mentally, emotionally, and physically motivated. This “Core Why” is your motivation.

Using Physiology to Leverage Your Core Why

Your body responds differently to exercise, food, and stress reduction techniques from other people. What worked for someone else is not guaranteed to work for you in the same way. This may seem obvious, but personal success stories are used effectively in marketing science, so it’s easy to be lured away from this fact. Your body is also unique day-to-day. What felt great one day is not guaranteed to feel great the next day. In physiology, this is called the Principle of Individuality.1

The only way to know what your specific body needs is to be guided by how it feels and responds in the present moment to exercising, eating, and stress management tools. Use science-based information as your guide, but trust what your body is telling you in the present moment as the most reliable guide.

Using Psychology to Leverage Your Core Why

In brain science version of this principle is intrinsic motivation.2 This is a well-studied theory that has demonstrated over and over that motivation sourced from what is inside your whole person is most lasting.

Motivation that is sourced from external measures of ‘success’ such as the scale, activity monitors, competitions, challenges, and the opinions of other people about how you are doing, is known to be short-lasting. Once the external motivation goes away or is not as important as something else in that moment, motivation is greatly reduced or eliminated. Over time, reliance on external motivators reduces a person’s confidence they can keep themselves motivated.

Internal motivators are things like feeling better, connection to others, being safe, your values, and your passions. They are a constant source of motivation for everything you do in life because they are always there, in the present moment, inside. They are your innate drive to survive so you can thrive. No matter what the external rewards are for doing something, motivation from these internal rewards are the most influential on your lasting motivation.

The tricky part is that external motivators capture the attention of your logical brain because they are easy to ‘see’, so it seems like you are making progress. But those external measures do not necessarily mean you are progressing toward what is most important to you. Internal motivators are not as tangible, because they are how you feel in your body, so it’s not as easy to know how to use them to stay motivated.

Self-determination theory breaks down intrinsic motivation into three elements:3

  • Choice: Also called autonomy, this is doing something because you choose to do it, not because someone else told you that you should. When exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress are something you make yourself do because you know you should, it’s a red flag that you are being externally motivated. Even if the reasons make perfect sense to your brain, and your choices are science-based, autonomy comes from what you know in your gut about what is right for you right now. When you make a choice because you want to take care of yourself now, in this moment, you know it is intrinsically motivated.

  • Confidence: Knowing you are competent to do what you know will lead to thriving keeps you intrinsically motivated. Someone can tell you how to ride a bike, but only by riding a bike will you have the confidence you can do it. 4. Confidence is something you know in your body. It is built by physically doing and paying attention to how you feel when you do it. This is why knowing what to do is not enough for motivation—you need to embody the skills. When making choices about exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress, the more aware you are that what you are doing is leading to thriving, the more inner confidence you have.

  • Connection: The stronger the connection of what you are doing to your Core Why, the more internal motivation you will have. This make sense, but when you use tools like the scale, activity monitors, or competitions as the measure of success, it disconnects what you are doing from why you are doing it. Having clarity about what it means for you to thrive gives you a tool for being internally motivated when you are getting on the scale, deciding what to eat, looking at your activity monitor, or choosing how to lower stress levels.

Internal elements of exercise motivation

How to use your Core Why

We have a culture that relies heavily on external motivators and encourages distraction from your body or pushing through discomfort in order to get to an externally-measured goal. The media, well-intentioned people, and external measures of progress will all pull you away from what you know inside. It takes strong inner knowing to keep trusting what you know inside as your guide.

This is why the first step in the Well-Habits system is clarifying your Core Why. This is a word, image, or statement that clarifies your why for making something a habit. It ensures your brain and body work together.

Your Core Why is informed by:

  • Your passions: what is most important for you to be able to do in life right now. It’s the people you want to be with and the activities that bring you joy.

  • Your strengths: knowing what skills and abilities you have inside that you can leverage. For example, you might be good at planning and organizing, or maybe creativity and spontaneity is your strength.

  • Your purpose: what you want to put out into the world, whether it is for your family, friends, vocation, or something on the grand scale like a global cause.

When your Core Why is the root of your lasting motivation, your habits are guided by an internal source that is lasting and reliable. With the Core Why as your root, you can nourish healthy habits for exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress in a sustainable and personalized way that is energizing from the start. When you connect your Core Why to your external motivators, it transforms moments of looking at your activity monitor, doing a meditation, or getting on the scale to a reminder to be guided by your Core Why.

Your Core Why

Enough to be well now: your mental element for lasting motivation

Chances are you know what to do to be healthy. Even if you don’t, you can find plenty of information on the internet to formulate a plan (or several plans). And that presents a challenge. There is so much information out there, that you can easily wind up in a constant low-level stress state by believing you are not doing enough. Since this physiologic state is when energy is taken away from healing, growth, and learning, the confidence you are doing enough is essential for being healthy.

The mental element of your whole person lets you sort through all that information. By looking at it through the lens of your Core Why, you narrow down what to do.

Let’s look at the body and brain science that simplifies knowing how much is enough and then how to use it for sustainable motivation to exercise, eat healthy, and manage stress.

The physiology of enough

There are endless choices of what to do to exercise, eat healthy, and manage stress. Your Core Why allows you to narrow down the choices, deciding what is right for you right now, based on what is most important to you.

In physiology, this is called the Principle of Specificity. It says your body adapts specifically to what you do (or don’t do).1 This is why exercising to burn calories is not the way to get what you want from weight loss and getting your heart rate up doesn’t guarantee you will have stamina for your passions.

For example, if your Core Why involves being able to travel, you could list the types of movements you need for the physical skills of traveling. That may include lifting and carrying heavy objects, learning self-defense moves so you feel safe, or being able to walk on an uneven surface. How much is enough is based on these personalized priorities?

Being guided by your Core Why allows you to use the principle of specificity when deciding how much is enough, and stay out of the state of overwhelm. That state hijacks your brain into the fight, flight, or freeze state where motivation is reactionary, short-lived, and likely to keep your physiology in a stress state. Let’s look at what brain science has to tell us about why it’s essential to know when we are in this state when creating lasting habits.

The psychology of enough

Neuroscientists have given us a much better understanding of what creates a habit than we have ever had before. Basically, your brain is hardwired to avoid what makes your body feel worse now and repeat what makes your body feel better now.

When exercise, eating healthy, or managing stress do not leave you feeling better physically, emotionally, and spiritually right away, it sets up a negative habit loop. 5 Your brain remembers and resists that choice in the future. Sure, you can override it, but that will take a great deal of energy. This is why willpower to ‘be good and do what you know you should’ goes out the window when you are under stress. Your energy is going into dealing with the ‘threats’, leaving less to override the negative habit loop and ‘be good’.

The more sustainable way to stay motivated, even during stressful times, is to ensure that the experience of making healthy choices is positive in your body. This is subtle. You might have a sense of achievement from reading a step goal, but if your body feels sore and tired from doing it, it tells your brain this is something to avoid.

Know how much is enough

Knowing you are doing what you ‘should’ based on guidelines and recommendations does not create habits. Feeling better in your whole person in this moment does. Body awareness keeps you aware of what your physical, emotional, and spiritual elements are telling your brain about whether to repeat or resist a choice again. This embodied knowledge allows you to define ‘enough’ with the greatest accuracy.

You can predict what you will do and how much will be enough, but until you are doing it, your body cannot inform your brain about how much is enough. For example, you might plan out how much you are going to progress your exercise over the next week and set a goal for what you will be able to do by the end of the month. That brain-based plan sounds great, but it is missing a key element—what your body will be telling your brain about whether this is the right amount or not. That is the is key information for habit formation.

Like the way the branches of a tree are flexible, so they are less likely to break in a storm, how much is enough needs to be flexible, so your habits are less likely to break when life gets stressful.

Keep habits from breaking

The way to know how much is enough is to:

  • First, know the basic science-based guidelines for how much is enough exercise, how to eat healthy and how to manage stress. Ensure you are getting your recommendations from science-based sources.

  • Second, fine tune the ranges of enough based on your Core Why. Be clear about what you know about your body and your life right now. What ‘worked’ before may not work now because your body or your life are different now. Getting really clear about what is realistic for you right now, at this time in your life, keeps you out of the stress state of trying to get somewhere else.

  • Last, stay present as you move into doing. This is what we will explore in the next step of this motivation guide.

Start thinking of motivation and habits as fluid, with ranges of what to do that are adjusted based on how you feel now. A multitude of outside and inside factors will affect your thoughts and emotions and thus the state of your body. Having ranges of how much is enough keeps it flexible enough for the changing nature of life.

how much is enough exercise

Use your motivation messengers: your emotional element for lasting exercise motivation

There are many factors that affect how what you are doing feels in your body. Your biochemistry and brain chemistry are in a constant state of change. They are influenced by sleep, stress, emotions, and a multitude of other factors too complex to predict, so each time you exercise, eat, and manage stress, it will likely feel different.

Emotions are essential messengers from your spiritual and mental elements. Their job is to inform your brain and body about whether you are surviving and thriving right now. Research on emotional intelligence reminds us that a useful tool for motivation and a key skill for well-being is emotional intellegence. 6

Since emotions are felt in your body, knowing how to harness their messages requires awareness of your body and your thoughts about what you are feeling right now. Typical approaches to motivation might see this as being soft. You might think, If I listen to my emotions, I will go off the rails and not exercise, eat junk food, and binge on Netflix. But research shows when you ignore emotions and criticize your ‘laziness’ when not feeling motivated, the struggle is made worse.

Let’s rethink the role of emotions for tapping into your natural motivation to thrive.

Using your physiology to stay motivated

The physiologic Principle of Reversibility states that your body and brain get used to what you give it, in both directions.1 For example, when you are recovering from an illness or an injury, your body adapts by losing mobility, strength, and stamina. You are not using it and your body can repurpose that energy to heal and repair. When you start moving again, using your strength, stamina and mobility, you regain it.

The biggest challenge to this is the emotions that come up when we lose physical skills, gain weight, or are hit with a major life stressor. When your body or brain function is limited in some way, whether it is a loss of stamina, weight gain, or inability to focus, it can easily trigger a stress state in your physiology. Being physically limited triggers your primitive neurology because in the past, physical or mental limitations meant you were vulnerable to the threats in your environment.

Even though you don’t live with the threat of being eaten by a tiger when you are injured, your brain still sends you warning signals when you are physically or mentally vulnerable. Those emotions can hijack your motivation as you shift to fight, flight, or freeze. Our cultural ideas about getting weaker and less mentally agile as we age adds to this trigger when we face limitations.

But the reversibility principle works in both directions—what you practice gets stronger. I have seen incredible evidence of this in my thirty years as a clinical exercise physiologist. The human body has the amazing capacity to heal and adapt so you can thrive. The human spirit is a powerful force for regaining the strength and skills needed for your Core Why.

The key when you have lost some function is to first get your physiology back to the thrive state. That brings us to the brain-science part of optimizing your emotional element for lasting motivation.

the human body and spirit healing

Mindful self-compassion for lasting motivation

Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment with curiosity and kindness. Mindfulness has been strongly connected with lasting healthy habits. 7 Self-compassion is a key component of mindfulness and has also been shown to greatly improve a person’s ability to stick with healthy habits. Both skills are known to start the shift of your physiology from the survive state to the thrive state and as a result, they have been shown to improve health measures like cholesterol, blood sugar, and cortisol levels. 8

Mindfulness allows you to sense what is happening here and now. All we have been discussing tells us that distracting means you will miss the key messages from inside that feed your motivation. But when you don’t feel good inside, distraction is an automatic response. This is why self-compassion is a key element of mindfulness. It creates a soft place for what you notice to land, so it’s easier to stay present rather than criticize yourself, even when you are experiencing strong emotions. These skills, combined with the awareness that your body and brain are built on the reversibility principle, remind you that this is the moment you can choose to spiral up or spiral down.

The challenge is we miss this moment when we are focused on long-term goals. We are told to push through pain, fatigue, and discomfort, especially at the start of a health program, to get to a goal. This approach works for ‘one and done’ goals, like getting a degree or winning a gold medal, but there is no scientific evidence that being sore and tired is needed to be healthy. In fact, soreness takes energy AWAY from the healing and growth of being healthy. Plus, the negative habit loop created by feeling worse in your body is the reason you struggle to make healthy changes a habit.

In addition, when you ‘tough it out’, you are practicing ignoring how your body feels, which takes a toll on your well-being. Again, this works for short-term success, which is needed for certain goals in life. But when you want to build lasting habits, being present, curious, and kind from the moment you plan what to do, and each moment going forward, aligns with the way your body and brain are hardwired for you to thrive.

How to use the present for a healthy future

The great news is every moment is a chance to reverse the direction of your body and brain.

The leaves of a tree use the information from the inside environment and outside environment to adjust how it uses nutrients to thrive. It doesn’t need to plan. It doesn’t need to push through. Its hardwired to grow and thrive. To do this, it needs what is happening here and now as its guide.

hardwired to thrive

Using the science-based ranges for how much is enough, staying present to how your body feels, and responding with kindness as you make choices for exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress, are the ways to create sustainable habits. Your emotions provide a personalized moment-by-moment built-in guide. The “all or nothing” or ‘I’ll start again tomorrow” mindsets start to fade away as you build confidence that you can trust your emotions to turn that spiral upwards and thrive.

The last element is where all this action takes place. Turning the spiral around does not happen quickly. All of these skills depend on trusting the pace at which your body thrives.

Meet yourself here: the physical element for lasting exercise motivation

Your physical element is more than just muscles, bones, and skin. It is home to your emotional and spiritual elements. That means that ¾ of your well-being is contained in your body. Your brain cannot be motivated without your body. Your body cannot thrive without your brain. The body-brain science of this element reminds us that changing habits must happen gradually if you want motivation to last.

The physiology of lasting change

The physiologic principle of progressive overload says your body gradually gets used to what you give it.1 For example, the body can adapt to about a 10% increase in exercise a week. That means if you are walking for 30 minutes, 33 minutes would be the next progression. But who thinks of progressing by three minutes at a time? The reality is more than that puts your body at risk of feeling worse, and we know what that does for habits.

This is true for nutrients as well. Your body can only process a certain amount of protein, fats, and carbohydrates at one time. That is largely determined by whether your body has the equipment to use those nutrients. Carbohydrates are turned into energy for cells in your mitochondria. The amount and function of your mitochondria is determined by their use (that use-it-to keep-it system again). Protein can only build muscle if your muscle cells have been activated by moving against gravity so they know to use the protein to build muscle.9 Calcium can only build bone if your bone cells have been signaled by those strong muscle contractions to create new bone cells. Even your brain’s ability to be mindful or self-compassionate does not happen overnight. These are skills that build gradually with consistent practice at the just right level for you right now.

The Psychology of lasting change

The Transtheoretical Model or the Stage of Readiness for Change in psychology agrees with this gradual process of habit formation too. 10 It found that behavior change happens in stages. The stages flow from not even thinking about changing, to considering the change, to preparing to change, finally making the change, and maintaining the change. The maintenance stage uses all you have gathered from each stage along the way. Research shows that when one stage is skipped, change is less likely to be lasting.

Even before you start any healthy habit, there are some very important changes happening in your brain, preparing you for lasting motivation. This is where your skill of self-compassion really comes in handy. It sees the value of a slow, gradual progression toward healthy habits, knowing you are giving yourself what you need for lasting motivation.

This is seen in all of nature. The fruit of a tree does not grow overnight. The buds of flowers are a sign of all that happened before, from the roots to the branches and the leaves, all doing their part so the tree could bear fruit and continue to bear fruit.

Embracing the stages of change

Like a tree, your body has a natural growth rate. Give it too much too soon, and growth is impeded. Give your body just enough of what it needs, and it will thrive.


So, embrace the stage of change you are in for motivation, and the state of your body and brain right now. Meet yourself where you are and you have the best chance for progressing at a rate where your body and brain can create lasting habits for being healthy and well.

Thrive Tracking is when you connect all these parts together. To do this, note (writing it down or in an app) what you did and how you felt. Writing is powerful because you can see it, providing evidence for your logical brain that the progress you are making is meaningful for your survival brain. In this way, your spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical elements can work together as your guide to thriving.

If writing it down does not work for you, saying out loud what you did and how you felt is a great option. When you do this, you hear your own words, which helps your logical brain and survival brain align for progress.

Looping back to your Core Why ensures habits are a cycle, each step supporting the other. As each element of your whole person learns from what your body is telling your brain, you can adjust so your brain knows this choice is worth repeating. As long as you trust what your body is telling you, even if it does not feel better from what you did, habits are still supported. Your drive to thrive will automatically search for solutions and ways to adjust so next time you have a better chance of creating a positive habit loop. Writing down what you did and how you felt supports this innate ability to progress gradually through the stages of lasting habits.

Confidence is what you know in your body

Summary: Your guide to sustainable exercise motivation for creating lasting habits.

In this guide, I showed you how integrating body and brain science with each element of your whole person clears the way for your natural motivation to be sustained. This body and brain science confirms how your spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical elements are hardwired to work together, sharing information about how to thrive.

The Well-Habits System is a four steps that allow you to use this science to tap into your built-in drive to thrive. It takes the struggle out of staying motivated by allowing these parts to work together to Be Well Now and support healthy habits.

The Well Habit System for Exercising Well

  1. Why: clarify what is most important to you right now—your passions, your strengths, and your purpose—so your Core Why is your personalized guide.

  2. Enough: know the science-based guidelines and stay aware that what your body is telling your brain to personalize enough for lasting healthy habits.

  3. Link: what you are doing to how you feel right now in your whole person. Mindful self-compassion skills ensure you are moving forward in a way that is sustainable.

  4. Learn: Using Thrive Tracking™ note what you did and how you felt so you ‘see’ progress towards your Core Why, while aligning with the natural rate of growth.

Like everything in nature, this is a cycle. Sustainable motivation does not mean getting motivated, it means renewing your innate motivation to thrive. Trust that each part of your whole person has a role in your thriving and you tap into your innate motivation to be healthy.

Sources for this exercise motivation guide

  1. McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (2001). Exercise physiology: Energy, nutrition, and human performance. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

  2. Morris LS, Grehl MM, Rutter SB, Mehta M, Westwater ML. On what motivates us: a detailed review of intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation. Psychol Med. 2022 Jul 7;52(10):1-16.

  3. Flannery M. Self-Determination Theory: Intrinsic Motivation and Behavioral Change. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2017 Mar 1;44(2):155-156.

  4. Kontra C, Goldin-Meadow S, Beilock SL. Embodied learning across the life span. Top Cogn Sci. 2012 Oct;4(4):731-9.

  5. Habits Smith KS, Graybiel AM. Habit formation. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2016;18(1):33‐43.

  6. Dave HP, Keefer KV, Snetsinger SW, Holden RR, Parker JDA. Stability and Change in Trait Emotional Intelligence in Emerging Adulthood: A Four-Year Population-Based Study. J Pers Assess. 2021 Jan-Feb;103(1):57-66.

  7. Schuman-Olivier Z, Trombka M, Lovas DA, Brewer JA, Vago DR, Gawande R, Dunne JP, Lazar SW, Loucks EB, Fulwiler C. Mindfulness and Behavior Change. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2020 Nov/Dec;28(6):371-394.

  8. Pascoe MC, de Manincor M, Tseberja J, Hallgren M, Baldwin PA, Parker AG. Psychobiological mechanisms underlying the mood benefits of meditation: A narrative review. Compr Psychoneuroendocrinol. 2021 Mar 10;6:100037.

  9. McKendry J, Stokes T, Mcleod JC, Phillips SM. Resistance Exercise, Aging, Disuse, and Muscle Protein Metabolism. Compr Physiol. 2021 Jun 30;11(3):2249-2278.

  10. Hashemzadeh M, Rahimi A, Zare-Farashbandi F, Alavi-Naeini AM, Daei A. Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavioral Change: A Systematic Review. Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res. 2019 Mar-Apr;24(2):83-90.

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