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How to Stop Hating Exercise

What research says about how to work around being unenthusiastic about exercise.

Key points

  • Imposed exercise programs often fail to convert low exercisers to regular exercisers.
  • We can get better results by focusing on developing intrinsic motives and feelings about exercise.
  • We can do several things to support an internal rather than an external reward system regarding exercise.
Source: AaronAmat/iStock

It seems that there are three groups when it comes to exercising or working out.

There are those who love it. These are the people that have a consistent exercise habit. Even when the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they make adjustments and keep at it.

Then there is the group that knows they “should.” They know the health benefits — that it can make them feel better, and it improves quality of life all around. So, they get started, maybe for the umpteenth time. Somehow, these folks never make the transition from “I should” to “I like” to exercise. It is always a chore. As a result, efforts are spotty.

Last but not least is the group that, even though they may know they should, just don’t see themselves as capable. Or, they figure it may be uncomfortable or perhaps even involve pain. They conclude that it is better to stay away from it altogether. Besides, they may feel that they are doing just fine the way they are.

Some Attempts to Change Don’t Work

To say that social sciences, psychology, exercise science, and other disciplines have been doing their best to cajole people into getting more exercise would be an understatement. Still, the percentage of individuals getting the recommended dose of exercise for health benefits on a regular basis is very low — around 20 percent, depending on whom you talk to. It may even be less than that.

Of all the programs and strategies that have been tried, three different types stand out.

  1. Some work to educate people about the benefits of exercise. Unfortunately, this approach does not help them like it or suddenly feel capable.
  2. Many programs have been instituted at the community level, as a research program, or given as suggestions to the “should” group to try. The vast majority of these programs do not create individuals who like to exercise. Often as soon as the program is over, so is the exercise effort.
  3. There are also efforts to make it more fun. Gadgets to track exercise abound. Some folks respond well to counting things, whether it be number of steps, minutes spent exercising, or numbers on the scale. You can then set up competitions and rewards to make it more social. Unfortunately, often the novelty of this wears off, and the exercise habit wanes.

True, some of these programs have their successes. Some people manage to discover that they like the benefits they are getting from exertion, and want to continue it. They make the switch from focusing on the pain and inconvenience of it to enjoyment. Then some manage to keep going even when the program they signed up for has discontinued.

But the rest of the participants often remain stuck in exercise never-never land.

Why isn’t there greater success with managed programs?

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Research tells us that externally applied programs rely on extrinsic motivation. That is, completion of the program or a temporary effort (i.e., “I’ll just give this a try”) is often based on receiving some sort of reward. It may just be the satisfaction of completing the program. The problem is that when the reward goes away, so does the incentive to continue.

A different way to approach this is brought to us by myriad theories regarding behavior change. Most if not all of them focus on intrinsic motivation as a fairly reliable driver of behavior change. Intrinsic motivation involves doing something for an internal reward. Related to this would be feelings of competence and satisfaction. As opposed to an external reward, an internal reward is always there.

3 Important Concepts in Intrinsic Motivation

We can use the concept of intrinsic motivation in behavior change theories to help people switch from feeling some level of dread about exercise to becoming tolerant or even enthusiastic about it. Here, three concepts stand out.

  1. Establish a core value that can drive a desired behavior change to include more movement or exercise. This can involve considering deeply what achievements we consider essential for ourselves. Then it is possible to be guided to work backward to determine what actions or skills would be needed to make this a reality. This would involve learning about exercise within that context.
  2. Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy has been used successfully to predict positive outcomes in behavior change, including exercise. Here, the strongest predictor of success has been developing feelings of mastery over the new behavior. This makes sense. Research also tells us that many people do not feel athletic enough, or healthy enough, or knowledgeable enough, to exercise correctly. One of the very effective ways to develop self-efficacy is to break down the activity into small changes that can be conquered one at a time.
  3. Developing self-compassion is another key. Again, this is an internal process in which the individual learns that failure can be a learning experience and not an end of the road. In addition, it is important to know that behavior change is difficult. Self-forgiveness is an important skill to develop along with the others.

Can Intrinsic Motivation Be Taught?

Those who like to exercise already know these tricks. They stay engaged on the bad days because they value the results they get for themselves. They forgive themselves and regroup after a lapse. They learn how to keep exercise from getting boring, and how to avoid burnout or discouragement. These skills are the ones that keep them coming back. They are the skills that can be taught to others using thoughtful guidance toward an internal rather than an external focus.


Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2):122–147.

Hagger, M.S., Cameron, L.D., Hamilton, K., Hankonen, N., Lintunen, T. (ed.) (2020). The Handbook of Behavior Change. Cambridge University Press.

Ettinger, W.H., Burns, R., Messier, S.P., et al. (1997). A Randomized Trial Comparing Aerobic and Resistance Exercise with a Health Education Program in Older Adults with Knee Osteoarthritis. JAMA, 277(1):25–31.

Hamilton, K., Warner, L., Schwarzer, R. (2017). The Role of Self-Efficacy and Friend Support on Adolescent Vigorous Physical Activity. Health Ed Behavior. 44(1):175–181.

Semenchuk, B.N., Strachan, S.M., Fortier, M. (2018). Self-Compassion and the Self-Regulation of Exercise: Reactions to Recalled Exercise Setbacks. J Sports Exerc Psychol. 40(1):31–39.

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