How To Harness The Power Of Intrinsic Motivation

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October 4, 2022 - Updated February 9, 2024

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Push-ups can be hard. Burpees are tough. Lifting heavier weights requires you to dig deep. And finishing that final rep can be challenging. But for many of us, one of the hardest parts of any exercise routine is finding the motivation to get up, lace up, and start the workout in the first place.

There’s no doubt that setting fitness goals can work wonders when it comes to keeping us motivated and on track, a workout buddy can hold you accountable and make exercise fun, and affirmations and positive self-talk can be great tools, too. But what about when none of that seems to help light a fire in your belly and get you moving? If you’re feeling unmotivated, it could be the perfect time to start tapping into intrinsic motivation.

What is intrinsic motivation?

The American Psychological Association defines intrinsic motivation as an incentive to engage in a specific activity that comes from pleasure in the activity itself instead of being driven by any external rewards or consequences.

According to a 2009 research article published in Frontiers in Neurorobotics, there’s a wide variety of motivation systems, and when you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re moved to act for the fun or challenge of the activity, as opposed to extrinsic motivation which is connected to external pressures or benefits. 

When you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re doing something simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, and you may experience additional feelings of personal accomplishment, excitement, and feel like you’re using or expanding your skills. 

You might play social sports because it’s a fun part of your week, rather than trying to win any trophies or championships. Perhaps your friend creates art because she loves it, rather than because she needs to make money from it. Someone in your family might be learning a new language, not because their job requires it or they’re moving overseas, but because they get pleasure out of learning new things!

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Intrinsic motivation and exercise

A 2012 systematic review published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity highlighted that motivation is a critical factor in supporting sustained exercise and positive health outcomes. For anyone who has embarked on a fitness journey, you’ll know how true this is! 

The research consistently supports a connection between self-determined forms of motivation and exercise, with intrinsic motivation being a strong predictor of whether we’re likely to stick to regular exercise in the long term. Intrinsic motivation has also been connected to improved psychological health and well-being!

According to a 2017 article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, research over the past four decades has found intrinsic motivation to predict enhanced learning, performance, creativity and psychological wellness. Why is this? Most existing research supports the theory that dopamine neurons in the brain are activated when we are intrinsically motivated! It literally feels good.

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How do you start?

To harness the power of intrinsic motivation for your workout routine, the key is finding a training style and workout schedule that you enjoy. Forget about what everyone else is doing or what goals they are chasing - how do YOU like to move your body? What makes you look forward to your workouts?

If you can’t think of any exercise you like doing, try thinking about how you want to feel. Here are some examples:

  • I want to feel strong and empowered

  • I want some stress relief

  • I want to feel challenged

  • I want that mood-boosting endorphin rush

  • I want to feel more confident

  • I want to feel more energised

  • I want to relax my mind and feel calmer 

  • I want to feel fit

  • I want to feel like I’m bettering myself 

  • I want to feel healthy 

  • I want to feel proud of myself

When you think about how you want exercise to make you feel, it often becomes clearer what kind of physical activity would lend itself to that experience for you. For calm and clarity, yoga might be the perfect fit. For strength and empowerment, a program like PWR or Lift with Laura could be right up your alley. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try different training styles until you find your perfect fit! You can also select workouts from the On Demand section of the Sweat app rather than committing to a program. 

Beyond finding a training style that’s right for you, you can also think about other elements of working out that you can tweak to add extra joy to every Sweat session. 

  • For music lovers, taking time each month to refresh your playlists can work wonders 

  • If social exercise feels more fun than a solo workout, find a workout buddy 

  • Take your cardio sessions out into nature or listen to podcasts or audiobooks

  • Treat yourself to workout clothes that make you feel confident and powerful while you Sweat

  • Trial different gyms to find an environment that energises and inspires you, or try going at different times and see how it affects your experience

Long-term fitness motivation

Because being intrinsically motivated means you’re engaging in an activity because you find it interesting and satisfying in itself, the chances are much higher that you’ll stick with your workout schedule in the long term. 

Enjoying exercise makes it easier to keep you going even on those days when you just can’t be bothered, when you’re not making progress as fast as you hoped, or when you’ve smashed out your fitness goals and aren’t sure what to do next. Exercise becomes so much easier when you no longer have to convince yourself to do it!

Sweat is about so much more than your workouts

Feel your best - inside AND out

If exercise has ever felt like a chore for you, or you tend to be motivated by external achievements or pressure, know that there IS another way to get yourself moving and feel good about it. Find that intrinsic source of motivation within you and start writing a new chapter of your fitness journey today!

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A more empowered you starts with Sweat, and our editorial team is here to bring you the latest fitness tips, trainer recommendations, wellbeing news, nutritional advice, nourishing recipes and free workouts.

* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.


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