Science-based motivation

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Looking for effective motivation to get more active? You’re certainly not alone. The good news is that science may have some answers for you.

Physical activity provides feel-good chemicals to be released in the brain and improves health, ideally making it self-motivating. However, self-motivating means that we see the reward as greater than the amount of effort required, and increasing physical activity levels requires lots of effort! Until the effort seems manageable to us and the long-term benefits are recognizable, science tells us that tools and skills that supplement the payoff and/or simplify the behavior change process are vital.

Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life and Business” advises that making the benefits more tangible in the beginning is a science-based tool. For example, treat yourself to a favorite activity after working out or give yourself something you really want.

Another proven tool is a commitment contract. Make one with a friend or create one online with a site like StickK was founded by two Yale University professors and a graduate student and is based on their economics research stating that motivation is sometimes as simple as changing the cost. If it’s going to cost you $20 to miss an exercise session or the embarrassment of knowing your friends know that you’ve missed an exercise session, you’re more than three times as likely not to do it.

Speaking of money, check out They have designed a community of fellow users who will literally pay you to stick to your schedule. If you miss your planned physical activity, you authorize them to charge your credit card or PayPal account. When you reach your goal, you get paid out of a common pool funded by yourself and other pact-breakers.

And here’s one more. Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., psychologist at New York University and author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation” says that research clearly shows just plain realistic problem-solving increases your success. Think about the things that make doing the right thing difficult for you and keep coming up with small changes to make it easier, like switching to morning or lunchtime workouts instead of evening if you consistently feel too tired.

Science may not include this warning, but common sense will. Being physically active on a regular basis, and doing it for you, is a process that can take more time than you expect, so exercise a little patience while you’re at it!

Debbie Coblentz is a registered dietitian and personal trainer. Comments in response to this article are welcome — send them to


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