When Ande Frayser lacks motivation to exercise, she thinks about the day when she burned a batch of chocolate chip cookies because she was too overweight and out of shape to reach the kitchen in time.
The experience was more than a wake-up call; it was a slap in the face. "It took a mind shift," said the 40-year-old Maryland mom, who used to find all the usual excuses to avoid working out. "I now look at exercise the same way that I do eating, drinking and going to the bathroom: It is not always convenient, but it must be done."
Frayser's experience parallels what researchers are also discovering about exercise: If we don't think it's valuable and vital to our daily lives, we simply won't do it. "It has to be a top priority because we are all too busy to fit anything into our lives that's not essential," said Michelle Segar, associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan.
Still, men and women aren't necessarily motivated by the same things. Some common reasons people work out, such as weight loss, turn out to be surprisingly ineffective for some people. Our motivation to exercise also changes as we age, because "what we value is determined by our life stage and priorities at the time," said Segar.
Most women, for example, start exercising to drop weight. But this can backfire; it can actually decrease motivation and worsen body image by fostering unhealthy ideals of thinness and creating unrealistic expectations, Segar said. Not only does that set women up to fail and feel bad about their bodies, but it turns exercise into a chore, and that undermines staying motivated, said Segar, lead author of a new study that looks at the type of ads that motivate men and women to exercise.
"For women, messages might be more motivating if they highlighted the connection between exercise and well-being," said Segar. Men, on the other hand, may respond positively to ads promoting exercise for weight loss or better health, according to the new research, published in a special edition of the Journal of Obesity. Many men also value competition as a reason to exercise, but women consider it one of the least important reasons to work out, according to Segar's research.
Segar believes most of us don't stay motivated because "our society has prescribed it in a very one-size-fits-all way: It has to be intense and make you sweat and has to last 30 to 60 minutes to be worth doing." In fact, there's mounting evidence that moving more throughout the day, not just a longer duration, is important for health, said Segar, who advises seeking out any and all movement.
What most dedicated exercisers know is that once they establish the habit and reach a certain fitness threshold, working out gets easier. And while they may have started exercising to impress someone or look a certain way, they often keep doing it because it gives them more energy, improves mental health, can relieve depression and they almost always feel better post-workout.
"Most of the time what got us started running or exercising ends up having very little to do with why we keep at it," said Christy Lambert, 33, the founder of inspiredrunning.com, who started running because she wanted to prove to an ex-boyfriend that she could run a marathon. "I'm guessing he didn't care, but it changed my entire life," said Lambert, of Richland, Wash.
Frayser, who has dropped three sizes since her scorched-cookie debacle four years ago, is now a Zumba addict, takes Pilates-inspired workout classes and walks on her off-gym days. "Physically, I'm sore after a good workout, but mentally and emotionally, it is such a lift to know that I came, saw and conquered," she said. "Each workout is such a victory for me, that when things aren't going well in other things, I will hit the gym."
Some options for inspiration
Some fitness goals can be more motivating than others. Here's a glance at common sources of inspiration:
Fear of pain. "At the end of the day, avoiding pain is more of a motivator than gaining pleasure," said Chuck Runyon, the CEO of Anytime Fitness and author of the book "Working Out Sucks (and Why it Doesn't Have To)." But pain isn't just physical. "Typically, it's a hurtful comment that gets people motivated," he said. "Or it's a fear of not being able to sit in a roller coaster seat with your child or not seeing them grow up," Runyon said.
To benefit health or prevent disease. While this sounds good on paper, the goals are too vague and distant. Segar's research suggests they do a poor job "of bridging physical activity/exercise from 'important' to 'essential.'"
"It's easy to say 'I value being healthy' and much harder to make that non-urgent goal a consistent and top priority in a very busy life," she said.
Family history: Darla Arni's grandmother suffered from dementia, and now her mother has also been diagnosed. Hoping to avoid the condition, Arni, 55, walks four miles three to four times a week, practices yoga, meditates and watches her diet. As her mother's caregiver, she also wants to spare her 17-year-old daughter from going through the same heartache and grief. "My mother's illness motivates me to keep up the fight," said Arni, of Slater, Mo.
Competition: Racing — and training for a race — can be highly motivating and provide a powerful sense of accomplishment. Or, if you're a gym rat, try social media. Andrew Bradley, 29, makes an extra effort to get to his club to maintain his current status as the "Mayor" of the 24-Hour-Fitness in Roseville, Calif. The designation means he has checked into the venue on the Foursquare mobile app more often than anyone else. Whenever someone boots him out of office, he simply goes seven days a week until he reclaims the title.
Money: Paying people to attend the gym regularly for a month can serve as a catalyst to get them past the threshold of starting an exercise program, according to University of California researchers. But incentives are best used with people who currently don't exercise, the researchers said. Paying people who already exercise may weaken their internal motivation so that when the incentives are removed, the people exercise less than before.
"Because I can": When Mark Black was in end-stage heart failure, waiting for a heart-lung transplant in 2002, he couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without losing his breath. Post transplant, he has run four marathons. "When I can't get motivated to run, I remember what it was like not to be able to," said Black, 34, of Canada. "Then I say I get to run rather than I have to run. It makes all the difference."