Motivation versus routine: Which is more effective for moving more?

woman exercising in lounge room

Motivation to get fit and move more is all around us. Whether it’s an inspirational social media post, a piece of advice from a health professional, or an upcoming milestone, there’s no shortage of prompts encouraging us to be more active. But without the commitment to follow through and establish a routine, how much is that motivation actually worth? 

Accredited exercise physiologist Kate Bell says there’s a fine line between motivation and discipline, and if you have one without the other, you’re unlikely to develop healthy habits. “I think motivation gets you started,” she says, “but behaviour change is going to be most successful when you take that motivation and develop the routine to make physical activity a regular part of your lifestyle.”  

What’s your motivation? 

Kate says there are two kinds of motivation, and one is more likely to lead to long-term behaviour change than the other. 

“When we unpack motivation, there are internal drivers and external drivers,” she says. “An external motivation might be an upcoming wedding or important event. You might set yourself a goal of losing 10 kilograms for that event, or you might take part in an eight-week exercise challenge. You might exercise religiously right up until that event or during that defined period of time because you have that motivation, but then everything wanes after that.   

“An internal motivation, on the other hand, is something you’re doing for yourself – it’s not attached to a deadline. Your motivation might be knowing that exercise will help your cholesterol, or your blood pressure. And once you start to exercise, you might find that your internal motivation is that you feel more energetic when you exercise, or your mood has improved, or you’re getting poked in the ribs by your partner less often because you’re sleeping better and snoring less.

“If you look at the people who develop a routine and exercise regularly, they’re usually the ones who start with that intrinsic motivation. It’s very difficult to develop that commitment without some sort of motivation… if you’re going to get out of bed at 5am every morning to exercise, you need to be able to see the worth in it and see the benefits that it’s going to have.” 

Developing good habits 

Kate says people who start exercising tend to go through three distinct stages – ‘contemplation’, when they know they should be doing something but haven’t started yet; ‘adoption’, the honeymoon stage when they first start exercising; and ‘maintenance’, when they make exercise part of a routine. 

“We know that with any behaviour change you put in place, you need to allow time for adjustment,” Kate says. “There are going to be birthdays and holidays and morning teas… behaviour change isn’t a linear continuum of greatness. There are going to be speedbumps. 

“We’re not going to be perfect. Ask any dietitian or exercise physiologist if we have a perfect exercise routine or a perfect diet – I guarantee you we don’t. That’s because we’re real people. That’s what you have to keep in mind with social media, too. I’ll often go on social media and see people exercising in lycra with make-up on. But the reality, as I tell my patients, is that if I go out for a run and I’ve got matching socks on, that’s a good day.

“As a society, we’ve developed an image of what society should look like, and what it should feel like for everyone. People will say to themselves, ‘If I can’t do it perfectly, why should I bother doing it at all?’ And we need to push through that barrier.”

Kate says the key to turning healthy intentions into healthy habits is to approach exercise with a realistic and positive mindset. 

“When I tell new patients they need to be exercising at least five times a week to lose weight, they often look worried,” she says. “That’s when I’ll say, ‘Look, that’s where we’re going, but that’s not where we have to start’. 

“I think if you’re going to make something a habit, you’ve got to enjoy doing it. You might start by dancing around the living room for 10 minutes after you get home from work, and find that brings a smile to your face. Then you go, ‘Hang on a second, I’m actually exercising. I can do this.’ 

“It’s about building up that self-confidence and the knowledge that exercise can be enjoyable. I see a lot of patients who aren’t great runners because they don’t like it. So I’ll say, ‘Well, did you ever like running?’ And they’ll say, ‘I liked doing ballet as a kid’, to which I’ll respond, ‘Great, have you looked into adult ballet classes?’ 

“Before I became an accredited exercise physiologist, I was an early childhood teacher. And in that space, we teach young children so much through play. But then we hit our adult years and we say, ‘Oh, I’m an adult now, and I have to do this serious adult thing called exercise’. We’ve developed this attitude that exercise has to be hard work, or we’re not doing it right. 

“But exercise can be a lot of fun, especially if there’s a social component to it. If you say, ‘I’m going out for a run with Bob’, or, ‘I’m going out dancing with my girlfriends’, that’s a lot more appealing then saying, ‘Ugh, I have to go out to do some exercise’.

“We know from a behaviour change perspective that when something becomes more enjoyable, we’re likely to do it longer and more often.”

Getting back into exercise 

Of course, exercising with friends has been much harder in the age of COVID-19. Over the last three months, even the most motivated and disciplined people may have found it difficult to maintain their exercise routines. 

“Everyone’s mindset has shifted a little bit,” Kate acknowledges. “For some people, it’s actually been beneficial. It gave them time to reset their routines and reevaluate what was really important to them. They said, ‘I’m not going to get sick, I’m going to eat better, I’m going to exercise’. But for some people, it sent them in another direction. It sent them into a tailspin, because they were taken out of their routine.” 

As coronavirus restrictions lift, even people who have been keeping up with at-home workouts might find that their bodies don’t spring back like they’d expect once they step back into the gym. 

Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) recommends that those returning to the gym after a long break or kicking off a new post-lockdown exercise routine should talk to an accredited exercise professional for individualised advice about the intensity of their workouts, and Kate recommends taking a gradual approach. 

“Start slowly and re-engage with your ‘old normal, by gradually building up to pre-lockdown levels’,” she says. “If you used to go for walks with a friend, and that stopped during the lockdown, it’s about reaching out, re-engaging and resetting that routine. Even if you’re not back in your office yet, but you’re someone who always went to the gym in the morning before work, start getting up and going to the gym again at that same time. 

“If you were in a good routine and you just slid out of it during the lockdown, it’s time to start getting back into that routine slowly. It’s not about reinventing the wheel – it’s about getting back into what has worked for you in the past.” 

Please remember: If you are new to physical activity, have a health problem, or are concerned about the safety of being (more) active, speak with your doctor or health professional about the most suitable activities for you.