Internal vs. External Motivation: How to Build an Exercise Routine You'll Stick To

03/26/2015 11:36 am ET | Updated May 26, 2015

On my running routes, there are a few folks -- the regulars -- I can always count on seeing. We don't know each other, but we wave and say "hi." I like to add, "Enjoy the run!" for good measure. "Thanks, I always do!" is a typical reply.

I was talking to a friend about exercise recently and how it can be so hard to get yourself into any kind of rhythm that fits into a productive routine. You want to take care of your body and feel your best, but it's damn hard to make the time in your busy life. Or you try a few routines and you just don't like them; they don't work for you.

That reminded me of those daily micro-exchanges:

"Enjoy the run!"
"I always do!"

That's not just a formality. We really do enjoy running. And the reason we enjoy it is highly dependent on where our motivation to run comes from.

If you've ever struggled to stick to a fitness plan -- or any plan, really -- the solution could be as simple as channeling your motivation from the right source. Here's how to do it.

Internal Vs. External Motivation

Talk to someone who works with drug rehab patients, and you'll hear the same wisdom shared over and over: "Success depends on your motivations." They can instantly tell if their patient will get clean and stay that way. Everyone who overcomes a drug addiction is motivated, but the ones who succeed long-term are the ones who are motivated for the right reasons.

And what are the right reasons? The research shows rehab success lasts when the patient is motivated to make himself better... for himself. Some people go to rehab because they're afraid they'll lose their job, their house, or their family. These patients might get clean, but it rarely lasts. Others go to rehab because they fear they'll lose themselves. These are the people who turn their lives around for good. [1]

That example illustrates the difference between internal and external motivation. When you're externally motivated to make a change, the things that drive that change are outside of you and your control. For an addict in rehab, it could be the loss of a relationship, a job, or something else. For you, trying to get in shape, it could be keeping your partner attracted to you, finding a mate, or impressing friends and colleagues.

All the data say if these are the reasons you do what you do, it probably won't last. External factors change, you can't control them, and trying to keep up with them proves useless over time.

But when you're internally motivated, you're driven by a desire to make yourself better. You're only accountable to you, and that means you control the variables that decide whether you succeed or fail. When those factors are stacked in your favor, the odds say you'll make lasting change.

Image courtesy of Tyler Tervooren

The most interesting part (perhaps most frustrating for some) is all the outcomes you hope for from your external motivations are often better and longer-lasting when you ignore them in favor of finding the internal ones that drive you.

How To Become Internally Motivated And Build An Exercise Routine That Lasts

Let's face it. We're all externally motivated to some degree. But if you struggle to build an exercise routine that will become a part of your life and produce the lasting results you hope for, the trick is in tilting the scale just a little -- finding the internal motivations that will produce those external results.

Here are a few things you can try that have worked well for me and millions of others who enjoy the benefits of regular exercise:

Focus on strength, agility, and endurance instead of appearance. Everyone wants to look great, but the only reason to look great is to have others look at you. Instead of making your looks your prime motivator, focus on increasing your strength, becoming more agile, and building more stamina. These are the things you control and, as you improve, the looks will come.

Only do exercise you enjoy. Don't feel pressured to do any specific routine just because you think it will produce results faster. Any gains you do get will be lost when you give up because you don't like it. If you like running, then do a lot of running. If you hate lifting weights, don't lift any weights.

When you try something new, don't give up for at least 30 days. When I started running, I didn't like it that much, to be honest. I was overweight, out of shape, and not very good at it. But I wanted to give it a fair trial, so I stuck with it for a few months. Nearly 1,000 runs later, it's one of my favorite activities. Don't give up on something because you're not good at it. Your skill will improve with time, and you're more likely to enjoy the things you're good at.

Focus on consistency, not results. You have more control over how often you do something than the results you get from doing it. And great results come from great consistency, not the other way around.

These are the primary factors in building an exercise routine that is a natural part of your life instead of one you struggle to implement over and over. When you let your internal motivations guide you, the results you get won't just be better, they'll be more fulfilling.

Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.


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