Motivation to Exercise – why it is hard and how to make it easier


Quick summary – Psychotherapists are not allowed to prescribe exercise for liability reasons though many of us have an understanding of neurology and the connection between physical and mental health… the research is both abundant and specific (as with most fields we are required to tell you to consult with a doctor to ensure that you are healthy enough to exercise). Much of what pharmacology (taking medication – such as anti –anxiety pills) does is to reproduce the release of neurotransmitters (think of them like chemical signals in the brain which affect or ‘turn on or off’ your thoughts, emotions, your hormone levels and ultimately your behaviors). Neurotransmitters associated with reducing depression, anxiety and stress are often released naturally during experiences such as exercise. Exercise has been studied to reduce stress, sleep problems, anxiety and depression while increasing euphoria, hope, sexual drive and neurogenesis (basically the creation, maintenance, and enhancement of neurons which are the functioning ‘parts’ of you brain.) The association between exercise and the resulting benefits does not happen naturally for reasons that I will explain – you must create the associations yourself. 

With all these benefits (many of which can come from nowhere else)… why is it so hard to exercise? 

  • Delayed gratification and pain – Unfortunately you need to overcome a bit of difficulty (around 30 minutes of exercise) before you get the benefits.
    • Conditioning (behavioral psychology) – we tend to pair stimuli together to create learned associations. ‘That feels good – I like that…’
      • With exercise it has been suggested that the delay in time between the initiation of exercise and the positive benefits of exercise inhibits our ability to connect exercise with the resulting benefits… and we probably pair exercise with the initial feelings – pain, inconvenience, etc


  • Fatigue, lethargy, apathy, and other symptoms of depression– a lack of exercise can be associated with certain depressive symptoms, which can make you less motivated to initiate the exercise you need to reduce those symptoms. (note: symptoms of depression means that you have one or more symptoms of depression without necessarily have a diagnosable case of depression – most of us have depressive symptoms relatively regularly)
    • There is no substitute for exercise if you have stress levels that are too high – stress has a physical effect on the brain. Exercise is the leading component in repairing a stress cycle (an over-active state used to respond to danger in which you almost always feel as though you are in the ‘fight or flight’ mode).
    • Hopelessness is a symptom of depression which would make any motivation to heal through exercise seem futile or useless.
    • Apathy is another symptom in which you believe that you don’t care – so why would you even bother trying to be more healthy – “what difference does it make.”
    • Lethargy – doing nothing physically exertive can have sedative effects – which makes you temporarily feel better if you are suffering from stress or anxiety… as with alcohol and other sedatives the effects are temporary and often cause other concerns. 

Alcohol and Comfort foods – both alcohol and comfort food can temporarily appear to assist with depression, anxiety and stress – unfortunately they might harm in the long run more than they help. 

  • Both make you less motivated to do exercise.
    • If you are full, hungover or drunk you are probably less likely to want to exercise.
  • It is more difficult and can take more energy to exercise a body which is impacted by over consumption of these substances.
    • This likely increases you association between pain and exercise.
    • To sedate the pain of depression, stress and anxiety without exercise you would need to indulge in comfort food and alcohol to a degree that could create a body that was more difficult to exercise.

Sexuality – other mammals in the animal kingdom are encouraged to maintain physical health for reproductive reasons. 

  • Hormones and neurotransmitters (those signal chemicals in the brain) are connected, which means that the neurological benefits of exercise also affect your hormones – which affect you sex drive.
  • Exercise and been shown to effect you libido (your sexual drive).
    • Perhaps some humans experience a reduced enough amount of exercise to impact the natural drives of mammalian sexuality.
  • It appears that sexuality can be a huge motivator for people to exercise as some people connect exercise with meeting sexual desires.
    • This form of motivation seems to be especially evident in reality TV show actors. 

Survival – other mammals in the animal kingdom associate physical health with survival. 

  • If an animal does not have health they could be chased down and eaten – many humans don’t tend to face such a concern
  • If a human does not maintain health they risk suffering from disease or body failure. 
    • Again the time line between not exercising and the onset of disease is too long for us to make a meaningful connection automatically.


Solution for the Day… 

You as a human have a developed enough mind to create your own associations, connections, and beliefs… which influence your behavior. 

  • Why do you associate ‘murder’ with ‘bad’ or ‘charity’ with ‘good’? – You and society made those connections…. people have beliefs even though they have had no relationship with the subjects.
  • Why would anyone have a retirement fund? There are no immediate benefits – you have to condition yourself to believe that it is beneficial.
  • Why would you have a tornado shelter? What is the immediate benefit – how can you know that it even is beneficial? You told yourself it was.
  • Why would you ever try in school if you didn’t like school and you would have rather been off playing in the woods? You created an association between doing your schoolwork and meeting your dreams – you can do the same with exercise.
    • There is a huge social component here – it is easier to make association when society at large is all in agreement (we are a social species).

You can make your own association between exercise and the resulting benefits– increased libido, feelings of euphoria, reduced mental and physical health risks etc. 

  • I have created an association between hopelessness and apathy (the depressive symptoms I experience more often than others) and exercise.
    • If I start to have thoughts such as “there is nothing that I would be happy doing right now… I just don’t seem to care.” I will go exercise – for myself there is a 100% connection – those thoughts go away 100% of the time following exercise.
      • I remind myself of this truth to create a motivating belief system.
  • I associate exercise with my passion for the mountains – every time I am out in nature I thank myself for the exercising that I did which allowed me to access nature with such ease – this creates a connection.
  • I exercise a lot with my dog – she is immediately happy – so I create an association between exercise and creating joy in my good little friend.
  • The mental, relational and physical benefits of sexuality are remarkable (perhaps a future blog will cover this.)
    • You can create or recreate an association in this context. 

The truth is this – We are a social species and much of our reality is created by collective agreement – or perception of reality is neither correct or incorrect – we simply all agreed that our beliefs, customs, rituals etc. were either correct or incorrect…  

  • When we collectively agreed that the world was flat we all behaved as though the world was flat.
  • When we all collectively believed that cigarettes were not bad for you – we behaved as though they were not bad for you.

You are a social being – join with groups of people who associate exercise with positive benefits and you will increase your ability to make such beneficial associations. 

  • There is no one on the planet that I am closer to than my wife – our agreed upon belief concerning the benefits of exercise makes it infinitely easier for me to engage in and to motivate to exercise.
  • Groups work.
    • Groups work for everything from trauma recovery to substance abuse treatment to weight loss to spirituality etc. 

Make life easier on yourself – get with a group of people that have positive and motivating beliefs associated with exercise and let the collective help train your mind to engage in the healthy activity known as exercise. 




William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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