Whether you just bought a Peloton Bike or Tread and are trying to kickstart a new workout routine, or are struggling to stick with an existing one, a lack of motivation is a hurdle that everyone has to tackle at some point in their fitness journey—even professional athletes. The good news? Science can help us hack it. Ahead, we’re sharing some tried-and-true tips from Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby and sports psychology experts that can help boost workout motivation when you really need it.
Understanding Exercise Motivation
Understanding the basic psychology behind motivation can help you work with your brain’s natural wiring. It all starts with understanding the difference between the two main types:
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Exercise Motivation
If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘find your why’ then you probably already know a bit about intrinsic motivation. This is all about the innate joy you get from an activity or motivation that comes from within, for example, if you’re working out to be healthier or have more energy, explains Judy L. Van Raalte, PhD, professor of psychology at Springfield College and a certified consultant for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, hinges on outside forces. This could be as simple as being motivated by seeing friends at your workout class. It could also mean treating yourself to a smoothie after class or a new pair of leggings when you reach a milestone like, say, taking five classes in a row, Van Raalte explains.
“Extrinsic rewards can be helpful and sometimes they're a tool that can get you started,” Van Raalte says. “The problem is that these rewards can actually take away motivation later.” In psychology, the overjustification effect is the phenomenon in which an external incentive actually causes us to lose the intrinsic enjoyment or motivation we once got out of an activity, she explains. That’s why using extrinsic motivation to jumpstart your exercise routine, but then shifting to finding rewards from within is key to maintaining motivation in the long term, Van Raalte explains.
How to Boost Your Workout Motivation
Ahead, a few science-backed tips to help you boost your workout motivation.
1. Set a Specific Goal—and Identify the Obstacles in Your Way
Goal-setting is a powerful tool when it comes to motivation, and one popular framework is SMART—or setting goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented. Another similar goal-setting approach that could be even more effective is WOOP, which stands for “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan,” explains Van Raalte.
Here’s how it works: Start with your big wish, then imagine the specific outcome. So, if your wish is to become fitter, the outcome should be something measurable like finishing a 5K race, explains Van Raalte. The next ‘O’ stands for obstacle—if you’re motivated to start exercising, recognizing the obstacles that may come up is extremely helpful so that you can then come up with a plan for how you’ll overcome them. For example, maybe your obstacle is not having the energy or time to run when you get home from work, so your plan is to run in the mornings so you stick to your training plan.
2. Begin Your Workouts with a Mental Warm-Up
“Similar to mindless eating, when we mindlessly workout it doesn’t feed our motivation because we're not getting from it what we potentially could, so it’s not as gratifying or satisfying,” explains
Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, a professor of coaching and performance science and director of the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Sciences at West Virginia University.
Instead, think about why you’re working out—maybe this is your big ‘wish’ or maybe it’s just something specific you want to get out of moving your body today, like to relieve stress. “Knowing your purpose helps you stay mindful and then feeds the motivation. When you get what you were looking for out of it, it creates a positive feedback loop,” Dieffenbach explains.
This is why sports psychologists like Van Raalte often recommend beginning with a quick mental warm up to really focus on what you want to accomplish before beginning a workout. Then, when it comes time to actually exercise, make sure you’re really there for it so you know you're getting out of it what you hoped to—this is key for creating that all-important positive motivation loop, says Dieffenbach.
3. Tap Into the Science of Willpower
One of the biggest ways to tackle a lack of motivation is to make it a regular habit you don’t second-guess. “Make working out a habit in your daily life so that it becomes part of your routine, your body starts to crave it—and that will help you stay on track and continue to show up on the days you do not want to,” Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby says. Intrinsic motivation at its finest!
To actually get the habit going in the first place, habit pairing or habit stacking can help. For example, if you do squats or balancing exercises while brushing your teeth or a 5-minute meditation while your morning coffee is brewing, you’ve now reduced how much willpower you need, because it’s paired with something you’re already doing, Van Raalte explains.
4. Don’t Treat a ‘Slip’ As a ‘Fall’
One common piece of advice given to people who are too busy to find the time to exercise is to schedule workouts on their calendar and then honor them in the same way they would a meeting with their boss. But it’s also true that there might be days when something else comes up that has to take priority, or you’ve used all your willpower at work, and by the time you get home it’s depleted, Van Raalte says. For the moments when you don’t have the time or energy to get a workout in like you planned, it’s important to practice self-compassion.
“No matter how much you love to move your body, there will always be days that you don’t want to. Give yourself permission, a day to not do it if you really don’t want to,” Cody says. (Or, if you only have 10 minutes, take what you have! “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” he adds.)
Van Raalte says it can be helpful to remember the concept of ‘‘slip, slide, and fall’: “If it’s a really busy time at work so you slipped and your workout fell off the calendar, you can say, ‘that’s okay’ and get right back to it, or you might have a slide and you've now missed all week—or a fall where now you're no longer exercising at all,” Van Raalte explains. “Some people miss one workout and they say, ‘I guess I'm not exercising anymore.’ They treat it like the fall, but it's not.”
“It’s a reminder that we don't need to be so tough on ourselves—sometimes we slip and if we slip then that's okay, just get back up again,” Van Raalte says. And remember: showing yourself compassion doesn’t make you soft or weak—it’s actually a more effective motivation technique than negative self-talk. “Kicking your own behind is effective in the short term, but not the long run.”
5. Let Music Fuel Your Workout
You probably already know that music can be a powerful motivational tool—and there’s also plenty of research to back this up. In fact, psychologists have found that music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, and reduces perceived effort, meaning people can run farther, bike longer, and swim faster than usual when listening to music—often without realizing it.
If you use the Peloton App or have a Peloton Bike, Bike+, Tread, or Row, you can filter classes by the genre of music you’re in the mood to hear. This can be one great way to keep you motivated throughout the entire class and give you that boost to keep going when you start to get tired.
“I enjoy creating a playlist that is fun and flirty. No matter what, I like to have something that feels familiar while also having songs that leave members curious and wanting to come back for more,” Cody says.
6. Choose an Activity That Brings You Joy
Ever heard the quote, ‘Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life'? Well, in the same way getting out of bed to go to work is harder if you hate your job, the same can be said for exercise. Forcing yourself to do a form of exercise you don’t enjoy will feel like an uphill battle, but if you find something you love you’ll be more excited to make it a part of your regular routine.
“There’s a lot about working out that’s a grind, so it’s about finding something about the experience that is exciting to you,” Dieffenbach says. Think about how you felt as a kid on the playground: your motivation was simply to have fun. As adults, we forget how important this is. She suggests looking for activities that “spark joy” and focusing on the innate sense of accomplishment you get from doing them. That’s because confidence and competence are huge pieces of the motivation puzzle, she explains: “If you feel competent in doing something, it's more motivating. And if it makes you feel confident, it enhances your motivation to do it.”
The same goes for finding a class and instructor you love. “I always tell people to connect to the thing that brings them joy in the class. Maybe it is the jokes, the music, or whatever source of happiness they connect to,” Cody says.
7. Don’t Skip the Cool-Down
We’ve all been there: Your workout is winding down and rather than stay for the 5-minute cooldown, you call it quits to beat the crowd to the locker room or to get on with the next commitment in your day.
Well, not only is that cooldown important for you physically, but it can also be extremely effective at boosting workout motivation, too. “We did a study where we had people pedal hard for 15 minutes or 15 minutes plus an easy 5-minute cool down,” Van Raalte says. The result? “Even though the 20-minute workout is longer with more workload, people felt less bad after versus the 15-minute minute workout that ended with hard work.”
Why does this work? “People tend to remember how they felt at the end of exercise.”
So, when in doubt, remember that tacking on an extra five minutes can make you feel more successful—and what’s more motivating than that?
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