Motivation plays a vital role in reaching and keeping a healthy and fit lifestyle. It acts as the driving force that propels you towards your goals — whether that’s reducing your body fat, getting stronger, reducing your blood sugar, or controlling stress.
However, staying motivated can sometimes be a challenge especially because of time constraints. Work and social commitments may leave little time for you to exercise and prepare wholesome meals. And if you’ve ever attempted getting fitter in the past, slow results may have caused you to doubt the effectiveness of your efforts.
In today’s guide, we’re going to discuss two types of motivation that drive your actions: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. What do they mean and which one is more important?
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Intrinsic motivation is when you pursue something with genuine enthusiasm and a deep sense of gratification, and not because of other people’s expectations. In other words, you do what you do not out of obligation.
For example, let’s say you’ve recently taken up running.
Each morning, you lace up your sneakers and hit the pavement. You enjoy the feeling of the wind against your face and the sense of freedom that running provides. You find that this health-boosting activity is an opportunity to clear your mind and feel connected with yourself.
On days when you’re feeling stressed out, you look forward to running again. The sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a run is a reward in itself. Rather than seeking external validation, you’re already satisfied with the fact that you’ve run.
The Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation
Perhaps the biggest advantage of being intrinsically motivated is that you’re likely to maintain healthy habits long-term. This is important for getting lasting results and preventing you from slipping back into old habits.
Here are more benefits of intrinsic motivation:
1. Less reliance on external rewards. Whether it’s earning points or badges from a fitness app or getting a vacation after hitting a certain fitness goal, external rewards can overshadow the enjoyment of the activity itself.
2. Commitment even in the face of challenges. Research shows that intrinsic motivation allows a person to cope with uncertain future situations. In fact, setbacks can serve as an opportunity for coming up with creative solutions. For example, if your job involves sitting for hours, you find opportunities to move more — such as doing “deskercise” (simple exercises while working at your desk) and exploring outdoor activities during weekends!
3. Freedom from comparison and self-judgment. Constantly comparing yourself to others or judging your progress based on external standards can undermine your efforts. In an attempt to surpass others, you might push yourself too hard, leading you to overtrain, eat too few calories, or follow a diet that doesn’t really resonate with you.
When you’re extrinsically motivated, you’re driven primarily by an incentive (such as money or prizes) and even recognition from others for reaching a milestone in your fitness or health. Sometimes, extrinsic motivation can mean doing something to avoid a negative outcome — such as a health problem or being criticized.
An example of extrinsic motivation is a company starting a “healthy lifestyle challenge” where everyone can win the following rewards: Extra vacation days, a trophy, and free gym membership. To earn these prizes, they need to lose a certain amount of weight and reach 150,000 steps in a month.
Throughout the challenge, employees show a competitive spirit because they’re enticed by the rewards.
The Benefits of Extrinsic Motivation
Knowing that you gain something from your efforts can be valuable especially if you’re just getting started with fitness and health. Here are situations where extrinsic motivation helps:
1. Starting a new habit. It’s no secret that immediate rewards tied to behavior can give someone the “push” to take action. This is especially true if you find the behavior intimidating, such as spending five minutes of meditation each day, cutting back on sugar, or hitting at least 5,000 steps a day.
2. Complying with a treatment plan. Healthcare providers, such as doctors and registered dieticians, can agree that adherence to treatment is a common problem. Besides sending patients reminders and providing them pamphlets, rewards like discounts on medications and free samples can effectively motivate them.
3. Keeping you accountable. Extrinsic motivation can make you feel empowered to follow through with your goals. Speaking of accountability, use tools or apps to track your progress. Getting feedback from a knowledgeable and experienced professional, such as a health coach, also helps!
Why You May Need Both
In many situations, we rely on a variety of sources to stay motivated. A person who runs, for instance, may do it out of personal interest and a sense of fulfillment while also training for a marathon to win an award. It’s usually a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that allows an individual to work towards improving their health and fitness.
All things considered, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be effective depending on your circumstances. Whatever your source of motivation, what’s most important is that it’s helping you stay committed and engaged.
Health and Fitness Motivation Strategies
Now that you understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and their strengths, here are practical tips to get started.
Set challenging but attainable goals.
Reaching a particular body fat percentage. Committing to a whole foods diet. Incorporating intermittent fasting throughout the month. These are some goals that push you beyond your abilities.
While these are challenging, make sure that you can realistically attain them given your current experience level, resources, and what makes you happy. What does your schedule look like? What tools or fitness equipment do you have access to? Do you have certain dietary preferences?
One of the best ways to feel inspired is by reading stories of people who’ve achieved remarkable health transformations. When you’re feeling discouraged, their experiences serve as reminders that you can accomplish anything with the right mindset!
Moreover, read books and other resources to stay informed about the latest health and fitness trends. Immersing yourself in educational content authored by professionals and experts allows you to make informed decisions as you continue making healthy choices.
Start small and build momentum.
Don’t underestimate the power of small changes in your lifestyle. It may be as simple as going for a walk outside or doing deep breathing in the middle of a busy workday — but these small actions can serve as a foundation for lasting health.
Here’s a tip: Instead of developing multiple healthy habits at once, begin with just one behavior to focus on. As you become more comfortable with the initial behavior, increase the intensity, duration, or complexity over time. For example, if you started with 10 minutes of exercise, try making it 15 minutes.
Understand that setbacks are normal.
Family responsibilities, an illness, and other commitments are some of the factors that disrupt your routine. When these events happen, the last thing you need is to engage in negative self-talk. Some people also fall into the trap of engaging in drastic measures, such as overexercising, to “make up for lost time.”
This is when being kind and understanding towards yourself matters most. Self-compassion can look like accepting the fact that the results you want might take more time — and with that, you allow yourself to slow down and not rush the process. It can also look like embracing a growth mindset. In other words, recognize that there may be more than one path (or a different path) to achieving your health and fitness goals.
You may be counting on intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation to eat healthier, move more, and achieve a certain physique. But, based on what we’ve just learned, both types of motivation have their unique benefits.
At the end of the day, it’s all about recognizing the approach that best supports your goals — even if it means leveraging both.
1. Di Domenico, S., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A new frontier in Self-Determination research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145
2. Atreja, A. (2005). Strategies to Enhance Patient Adherence: Making it Simple. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1681370/
3. Adhikari, P., & Gollub, E. (2021b). Evaluation of the Small Changes, Healthy Habits Pilot Program: Its influence on healthy eating and physical activity behaviors of adults in Louisiana. European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education, 11(1), 251–262. https://doi.org/10.3390/ejihpe11010019