Fitness Realities: The Myth of Motivation

Legend tells of a mystical force that appears mysteriously from the heavens to ordain people with a Christmas morning-like exuberance for exercising. This ethereal mist comes and goes, showing up unexpectedly to provide people with a jolt of pure, unfettered passion for fitness, a “get-out-of-my-way” drive for achievement and then leaves abruptly, taking everything it brought with it plus penalties and interest. By all accounts, it emboldens the meek, enervates the lazy and possesses the uninspired like the Holy Ghost at a Baptist revival meeting. It is called “Motivation,” and the problem with this legendary phenomenon is that it occurs about as often as Congressional reform and it’s absence leaves us broken like a toppled stack of blocks.
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If I had a nickel for every client who has said “I just don’t have the motivation” or some such variation, I’d have drawers and jars fat with coins, overfilled and spilling onto the ground underfoot. I’ve heard references to motivation and how one doesn’t have it/doesn’t feel it/doesn’t know how to get it dozens, if not hundreds, of times during the course of my time in the fitness world. But it took me until recently to realize that people are confused about what “motivation” is and whether it’s even a quality necessary for success in fitness or in any other area of life.

What is “Motivation?”

According to experts, “motivation” comes in two forms; intrinsic and extrinsic.

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when the student pursues learning due to their interest in a specific topic.” – Marina Salsbury; “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic. The Challenge of Motivation”

In my thinking, that is simply to say that “intrinsic motivation” is when “motivation” comes fromspartan race, warrior dash, hero rush, tough mudder, triathlon, adventure race, adventure racing, obstacle course, strength training, interval training the inside-out. In those cases “motivation” is like Young Love, the flush of a new romance. It’s that warm blanket you wear every moment that follows your first fitness affair, when you’re still so giddy about the prospect of becoming a cover model that you’re looking at other people’s plates at dinner time and thinking:

“Wow. You know, you really shouldn’t be eating that.”

You’re drunk with newly discovered inspiration, bragging loudly about how sore your legs are from Boot Camp earlier that day and how many burpees you cranked out. “Intrinsic motivation” is what has you buying flowers and writing love songs for that special girl. It’s a drug; quick to the rush, but equally quick to leave.

Here’s the Achilles Heel of Intrinsic Motivation, though: What if you’re really not so interested in fitness training, you’re interested in looking good and you can’t get there unless you spend time doing something you hate? Well, then once the jolt of initial excitement has worn off, when the freshly paved road of action has been run-down into dirt and that new romance has dissolved into a fifty-year marriage, “motivation” is a distant and hazy recollection like a night spent drunk on the town, a slight tingle that scratches softly at the fragile husk of your memory. Inspiration is dead, you’re left with the imposing presence of fitness promises, and you begin to wonder how to get it the hell out of the room.

“Extrinsic Motivation comes from outside…” says Ms./Mrs. Salsbury. In the dictionary, “motivation” is defined (in part) as:

Providing with reason to act in a certain way. Inducement, incentive. 

This is the outside-in type of “motivation,” when you get an external reward of some kind for completing a project. A paycheck for going to work, a college degree for completing four years at a university, permanent teeth for regularly visiting the dentist. You have a reason, an incentive, for doing something.

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And that’s where “motivation,” intrinsic, extrinsic or otherwise, falls apart. It wasn’t much to begin with. It was the brilliant blue sky of a smog-free day in Los Angeles. It’s that follow up book that JD Salinger never wrote. It’s a rumor, a myth. Where is “motivation” when you really NEED it? Nowhere, because “motivation” doesn’t contain any real power, it only contains wish.

And if wishes were Porsches, poor boys would drive.

When it comes to fitness, you need a stronger tool than myth. You need something more real and more potent than the elusive and unreliable “motivation.” You need something you can build a house on, something with strength and power.

What you need is commitment. What you need is resolve.

Resolve (to make a dirm decision about, to find a solution to, to bring to a conclusion) is what “motivation” would be if it ever grew up.

Commitment (commit = to do, perform, perpetrate) is even simpler; commitment is pure action.

Resolve is that thing that has you showing up at the job you hate because you have a couple of kids who need new clothes and shoes and guitar lessons, that thing that has you cracking the books at midnight to study until dawn for a test you don’t care about but that you need to crush. And commitment is that thing that gets you out of bed at 5 AM, tired, bitchy, but nonetheless determined to find your way to the gym and grind through another training session because you have decided that you are bigger than your need for comfort.

Commitment and Resolve don’t care whether you want to do something. They are what are left remaining in your toolbox when you’ve grown into the kind of person who accepts that the things in life that have true and lasting value are the kinds of things you have to FIGHT for.

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“Motivation” is a broken word. Perhaps it was once a straight shot of something strong, but it’s been watered down with so much ice and expectation that it no longer tastes like the fine Scotch you thought it was when you bought the fancy bottle. And the longer you rely on that elusive and inadequate force, the longer you will stare at yourself sadly in the mirror wearing a pair of pants that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself, the longer you’ll spend in doctors offices hearing the sad chronicle of the dissolution of your health, the faster the framework of your self-worth will crumble. Fitness is not about feeling. Fitness is about action. And where “motivation” wants you to feel good on it’s terms, commitment and resolve don’t give a damn how you feel as long as you’re running face-first into the wind.

Jonathan Aluzas is the owner of Arena Fitness; a personal training, semi private training, group training and boot camp facility with locations in Northridge and Encino.