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What Actually Motivates us to Exercise: It’s Not What You Think

I’ve always looked forward to my strength training workouts but since March and the onset of the pandemic, I’ve anticipated with excitement and cherished my workouts more than ever. Since mid-November, I’ve performed my two weekly strength workouts rotating between our St. Louis Park location and our new Micro Studio in Edina. Starting in February, I’ll start rotating my workouts through all seven of our studios (I love the variety of training in all of our studios, on slightly different equipment, and with our array of trainers). But from November through February, 95% of my workouts will be in SLP and the Micro Studio (during our last shut-down, I was trained “virtually,” in one of these studios).
Below is a clip of the Micro workout that I did yesterday with David. Our equipment at this studio is a collection of one of my all-time favorite lines of equipment, Nautilus Nitro. This equipment is no longer manufactured but we sourced a full line of this equipment in Connecticut, had it completely rebuilt and refurbished, and it functions and looks like new. The design of the pec fly is one of my all-time favorite machines and I’ve wanted to own and train on one since 2002.
My workout was as follows:
  1. Horizontal Calf – 12 reps
  2. Prone Leg Curl – Lift with both legs for 2 seconds and lower with 1 leg for 8 seconds and continue to alternate legs.
  3. Leg Press – 20 reps (no rest)
  4. Leg Extension – 20 reps (as so many of you know, this is a brutally tough combination).
  5. Chest Press – 12 reps (no rest)
  6. Pec Fly – 12 reps (no rest)
  7. Dip – Negative Only
  8. Pullover – 12 reps (no rest)
  9. Chin-up – Negative Only
  10. “MSU Upper Body Finisher” – A series of biceps curl, shoulder press, and push-ups.
  11. Abdominal- 12 reps
  12. Back Extension- 12 reps
As always, the exact design of the workout is not what made it magical. This workout was awesome for the same reasons why all workouts are awesome: I was coached and instructed by a great trainer; I always record the workout and the looming pressure to match my last workouts performance or improve with perfect form is always looming; and most importantly; the intensity was high.
I realize that the workout is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That being said, my workout is still truly the highlight of my day. I hope you look forward to your next workout as much as I look forward to mine (and I encourage you to try a session at our Micro Studio).


Michelle Segar is the director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan and chair of the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan’s Communications Committee.  We were both speakers at a conference in Sydney, Australia in 2017 and I was so interested in her research that in 2018, I invited her to deliver a keynote at the conference that Discover Strength hosts.

Backed by her research, Segar asserts that we have exercise motivation all wrong.  Traditionally, fitness and healthcare professionals (Discover Strength included) have attempted to motivate people to exercise by having us focus on the innumerable, long-term health and medical benefits of exercise.  This seems to make sense because of course, the scientific research supports exercise as the most important medicine we can take.

Segar’s research suggests this is the wrong approach.  It turns out, trying to motivate one’s self to exercise to reap long term benefit doesn’t work.

What does work?

Focusing on the short term, acute benefits of exercise.  We should seek the immediate gratification associated with exercise.  We should look forward to our workout today because it is a joyful experience; we literally feel better following the workout (for the rest of the day).  The science clearly indicates that humans are more motivated by immediate rewards than delayed gratification.  It turns out, long term health benefits like warding of heart disease and cancer or losing weight, as noble as they may sound, aren’t effective in getting us to change behavior.

How do we put this into practice?

Segar says we need to mentally rebrand exercise.  Instead of thinking “My goal is to ‘be healthy,’ or, ‘to lose weight,’ we need to start saying, ‘It’s so that I can feel good today,’ or, ‘It’s so I can be more effective at work.’”

Take Home Message: Be armed with the knowledge that intelligent exercise is the most important driver of long-term health outcomes.  However, in order to drive your exercise motivation and achieve these outcomes, focus on the immediate gratification of how you will feel after your workout.

I did a workout with David this morning and I felt exhausted, challenged, exhilarated, a sense of accomplishment, .01% leaner, strong, capable, smart, and tough.  The workout this morning has made my day so much better.  I’m certain this is something we can all relate to.  It’s impossible to not feel better after a great workout.

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