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Lost your motivation to work out? Here’s why – and how to get back on track

In the early phases of lockdown, the streets were teeming with runners and living rooms were a blur of uncoordinated star jumps and lunges. In fact, physical activity levels in the UK peaked around mid-to-late May, just before lockdown restrictions began to be eased. Now, after months of fluctuating social restrictions, many people are reporting on social media that they’ve suddenly lost their motivation to exercise.

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This article was published by the Conversation.

The truth is that motivation is simply returning to normal. The UK weather was ideal for exercise in April and May, and many of us had more time available to squeeze in a workout. Two major barriers to exercise were removed. Usually, motivation is a battle of different choices. In normal circumstances, exercise fights against many other appealing leisure pursuits, such as going to the pub, the cinema, or spending time with friends. But during the most severe part of the national lockdown, the choice was either to go outside for exercise, or stay home all day. The motivational odds shifted in favour of exercise.

Lockdowns around the world also acted in a similar way to a new year, new school term, or birthday. Significant dates and events can disrupt routines and provide a chance to make a fresh start, so many of us began to exercise. But, like new year’s resolutions, our motivation steadily faded over time.

The type of motivation needed to start a new behaviour is often very different to the motivation needed to sustain one. Most people start exercising because they know it’s good for them, and outside pressures (such as from TV adverts, or friends) tell them they should. “Should-do” motives are an effective way to start a new behaviour.

But as lockdown eased, barriers to exercise appeared again – such as being able to spend time with friends at the pub, or the need to get ones children ready for school again. Relying on “should-do” motives in these scenarios requires considerable mental effort and willpower. Unfortunately, one of the most interesting aspects of human motivation is that we dislike the feeling of effort and willpower and tend to avoid it. The pub, the kids, tiredness and work all win the battle against exercise. “Should-do” motives are terrible at sustaining exercise behaviour.

Even some people who exercised religiously are reporting loss of motivation. But again, the type of motivation driving their exercise may explain why this has happened. People who exercise to seek approval from others or to boost their self-esteem often report increased anxiety and body disatisfaction, despite high levels of exercise. Lockdown (and gym closures) may have increased these negative feelings because the situation meant that people weren’t getting the compliments and boosts to their ego that they sought.

To stop these motivational declines, a dual approach is needed that makes exercise easy in the short-term while developing strong long-term motivation. When it comes to long-term motivation, many psychologists believe your identity is one of the most resilient motivational systems. Identity can often be a vague term and difficult to describe, but put simply, “be” goals are more motivating than “do” goals. So instead of “doing” exercise, focus on “being” someone who exercises.

Dr Ian Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, from the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University, discusses how to get fitness goals back on track after losing motivation in the Conversation.  

Read the full article HERE.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 20/169

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2020 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 6th in The UK Complete University Guide 2021.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.