What is motivation?
Motivation is a driving factor for actions, willingness, and goals. Our motivation is driven by both external (extrinsic motivation) and internal (intrinsic motivation) factors. External motivation usually has some type of reward or accolade attached, such as getting a medal after completing a race, losing weight during a fitness challenge, or anything that helps you achieve your goals while staying accountable and interested in the activity. Intrinsic motivation is related to your “why,” so it’s personal and there’s often a level of passion involved. This behavior is innately a part of who you are. This could look like working out because it improves your mood and makes you feel amazing or enjoying meditation daily because it makes you feel grounded and peaceful.
Some people see working out as a social event and an opportunity to connect with others, whether in a fitness class or running group. These people love the comradery that serves as a motivator to stay focused and on track with their workout routines. Your sources of motivation aren’t always the same and may shift over time. You may start with external motivation, like walking four times a week to manage a health issue, before coming to realize you really enjoy walking because it makes you feel good and boosts your mood, which are internal motivators.
The impact of COVID-19 on our exercise motivation
COVID-19 upended our lives. One day we were in the gym or out for a run, and the next we were being told to shelter in place and avoid contact with anyone outside our own home. Whether your preference was group fitness, strength workouts at the gym, or outdoor runs, your routine was impacted. Everyone had to pivot quickly to find alternative workouts they could do at home (or find quieter running routes).
Suddenly our homes became our living spaces, workplaces, schools, virtual socializing spaces, and fitness studios. We realized our number one priority was staying physically and emotionally healthy, and it became difficult to maneuver a fitness regimen as people suffered the death of loved ones, faced economic losses, and battled fear of the unknown.
Gisela, cofounder of StartLine Runners, shared, “At the start of the pandemic when we all had to quarantine, my workout routine was halted. I was scared to go outside for my daily runs, scared to go to the gym, scared about the future, and felt depressed. I thought we were all going to die from COVID-19.” This fear resonated with so many of us and, ironically, exercise is one of the activities that help us manage stress and anxiety!
We were thrown into a situation where we had to prioritize health, but our motivation was slowly diminishing as the virus spread and inflicted so much pain and suffering. Michael Conlon, owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy, shared his feelings about the pandemic: “Our office closed for three months. As a physical therapist, I used my office as a gym, so once the office closed, I lost access to my so-called gym. I was unsure how long the quarantine would last and quite honestly was filled with fear, so working out was no longer my top priority as the health and safety of my family was my only concern. After sitting at home for approximately three weeks, I realized the pandemic would force us to quarantine much longer than expected, and I needed to change my daily routine.”
Agii, an attorney in New York City, also shared: “My workout routine was completely obstructed during the pandemic. I was a regular at Orangetheory Fitness, interspersed with hot vinyasa yoga and running. It was hard to stay motivated, but I went running, did Zoom classes, and got outside even more than I usually did with my dog. I am an incredibly active and extroverted person, and living alone through a pandemic has been extremely challenging. Having to walk my dog three to four times a day really helped my mental health, and doing something to get my heart rate up was key.”
Runners and their pandemic hurdles
Runners were hit especially hard as they fought to overcome the fear of running outside coupled with new mask protocols. Marathons and triathlons were cancelled, and the external motivation for many was eliminated without warning. These kinds of races are pivotal for many runners because they need them to set goals, stay accountable, and remain motivated. Rashidah, a New York City attorney and triathlete, shared, “Quarantine affected my workout routine because I didn't want to meet up with other people to run. I felt sort of lost without having my accountability partners.”
As the pandemic went on, running groups and teams had to find alternative ways to keep participants connected, which meant socially distant runs, Zoom workouts, increased social media interaction, and outdoor meetups. By the summer, virtual races were introduced to help the running community stay connected and positive. Stacy, founder of Stacy B.E. Photography, shared her journey: “I had every intention to stay fit by sticking to my daily runs and bike riding. After losing family and friends to COVID-19, slowly but surely, I became lazy and my wine intake increased. Before I knew it, I was 20 pounds heavier and didn’t like this new me.”
Limited outdoor activity caused emotional distress and depression for many, and motivation waned. I had many friends and colleagues tell me they felt frustrated and could not believe that at one point they could knock out a six-mile run easily because now they struggled to get off the couch or run a few blocks. James Ravenell II, founder of Black Runners Connection, said, “My routine definitely was interrupted. As a runner, I was getting conflicting data about the safety of running outside – masked or otherwise. I had a lot of anxiety around it but opted to stay indoors. I also didn’t want to risk an unexpected injury that could land me in the healthcare system and potentially expose me to COVID.”
The neuroscience and hormones behind motivation
It’s easy to be tough on yourself for lacking the motivation to get back to your fitness routine or start a new one. It’s hard to have a beginner’s mind when you’ve done an activity for so long and desperately want your fitness level to return to where you were prior to COVID-19. The great news is that exercise stimulates neurogenesis, which is the creation of new blood cells in the brain that increase neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow.
For example, aerobic exercise helps the brain as much as the heart and stimulates the release of the substance known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which sets in motion the growth of new synaptic connections. This gene helps pave new neural networks, promoting mental and behavioral flexibility. Stress is known to weaken expression of BDNF, and stress, fear, and negative thinking disrupt neuroplasticity. So it makes sense you’d lack motivation while navigating a worldwide pandemic!
Ashley, a mixed martial artist, had a tough time adjusting. “My workout routine was definitely affected. I struggled mentally, emotionally, and physically as I tried to wrap my mind around the uncertainty that was to come. Like many others, I cried most days and found myself emotionally eating throughout the day and night when I could not sleep. My anxiety was nearly unbearable, and my sleep schedule was nonexistent. I lacked the motivation and willpower needed to get back on track.”
We were constantly in a fight-or-flight stress response, which activates stress hormones, telling our bodies we’re in danger. During the first few months of the pandemic, many were tuned in to news outlets 24/7, had news alerts on their phones, and stayed on social media platforms for extended periods, all of which are triggering. This behavior activated the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) frequently and diminished motivation.
Nikki, a design director in New York City, shared, “Before quarantine, I saw my personal trainer twice a week and went to my local gym two to three times a week, where I could work out, swim, use the basketball court, and take yoga classes. It all came to a stop very quickly, and I felt a lot of anxiety. My workout routine is as much about my mental health as it is physical, so having that taken away was difficult. There was so much uncertainty during those first few weeks. Trying to juggle working from home, taking care of a young child with no childcare, and dealing with everything going on in the world, I just didn’t take time for myself. It took about two months to figure out how to carve time out of my day for self-care.”
How to increase your motivation to work out
When you’re ready to take action, it’s important to start making goals that are S.M.A.R.T., which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. It’s also important to honor your body and refrain from negative self-talk that serves no purpose. The key is to meet yourself where you are at the present moment and create a plan that works best for you and your current schedule.
Natasha Ross, group fitness manager at Equinox, shared her experience: “My motivation during quarantine was up and down like most of us. Coaching others was a huge driving force that kept me motivated. Holding myself accountable while letting go of the rigors of my daily life, being a little more forgiving with myself and less strict, and focusing on the pure joy and happiness of movement felt good. It all comes down to mind-set and how you view things – that’s the first step in implementing positive change – a positive mental attitude will get you far! Self-doubt stinks, so you must stay focused on your goal in order to stay motivated. This process is part of self-growth so you have to respect the process.”
If you need support to increase your motivation, set a three-month goal and list at least eight action steps that will get you closer to accomplishing it. Goal setting is an important exercise that will help you get back on track as you move through the action steps and see the results. James Ravenell II of Black Runners Connection explained, “I only ran 80 miles in 2020. On January 1, 2021, I decided I had enough inactivity. I set a yearly goal of 1,200 miles. I may not reach it, but it gives me something to look forward to. I’ve been inconsistent, but I'm happy to be vaccinated fully. It's hard to be what I was before inactivity. I stopped beating myself up and just do what I can to be consistent.”
If you find it hard to keep yourself accountable, ask a friend to be an accountability partner or join a Facebook group or online community that shares your passion for an activity. It’s also beneficial to cultivate a positive environment with like-minded people. Most importantly, be patient, kind, and compassionate with yourself through this comeback journey. Remember that results take time, so fully embrace, accept, and trust the process.
As a Health Coach, I am so blessed to be able to support my clients by cocreating lifestyle changes that foster a positive mind-set and accelerate motivation. My IIN education gave me the tools needed to empower my clients to embrace self-determination and autonomy as they improve their overall well-being.