What’s your motivation for being active?

There are any number of reasons you might want to maintain an active lifestyle. Recently I realized that my motivation to be active has changed significantly over the years, and that this change has influenced my lifestyle choices.

For instance, I first became interested in exercise back in early high school. At that time, I was quite self-conscious of my scrawny frame. Thus, the motivation was to put on some muscle mass. Accordingly, I began lifting weights after school with some friends. At some point I also began taking protein shakes, and became quite focused on eating more (regardless of quality). Aerobic exercise wasn’t something I was particularly interested in.

Near the end of my undergraduate degree and during graduate school, I became aware that my body was no longer immune to putting on fat mass regardless of the junk I ate. Thus, rather than getting big and muscular, I was more concerned about staying lean. I started eating better, started running regularly, and slowly changed my workouts to include more cardiovascular components (e.g. skipping between sets of weights). Overall, this period of my life was probably the most intense I’ve been about having a clean diet and exercising hard. Unfortunately, due to the volume of training, I experienced recurring injuries (my lower back is a particularly injury-prone area for me).

This summer, I have come to realize that for the first time in my life, vanity in my appearance is no longer my main motivation for being active and eating well. As conversations between Marina and me drift towards starting a family, I’m more concerned about being around for a long while to see my kids grow up. Also, given our wanderlust, I’d like to be healthy enough to travel and explore the world into my senior years.  Thus, being fit as well as preventing injuries is a main concern. Although I still work out regularly, the intensity of the workouts is a bit lower. When weight lifting, I have stopped trying to lift maximum loads – there is just too much risk of injury and simply no good reason to push that hard. I still do my best to eat clean and limit my intake of junk, alcohol, and simple carbohydrates. But, when I do indulge the odd time, I no longer feel much guilt about it.

I’d love to hear about your past and present motivations to be active, and how these motivations have influenced your lifestyle. Looking forward to you comments!


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28 Responses to What’s your motivation for being active?

  1. daniel.lende says:

    I’ve found the same thing. I did organized sports in high school and college, and that – plus the “look good” factor – were most of the motivation. Plus just a love of running, it felt good.

    During graduate school and starting a family, I did 5k races and masters swimming. Competition was still fun, I enjoyed putting in the time and effort to see what I could do at a particular moment. Not many illusions about best times, but “on any given day…”

    I’m now into my early 40s. I can’t do distance running because I consistently strain my leg muscles (maybe too much sitting… uh oh), and find I’m not as interested in doing competitions right now. But starting about 18 months ago I got back into swimming regularly for my health and for helping reduce my stress. One of the main motivations is to be around as long as I can for my kids, and also because I know it helps me manage the stress of my work. Plus lose weight or at least not gain too much. So I’m swimming for health reasons now. Plus enjoying it – trying to find ways that I can still enjoy exercising, rather than feel it’s something I have to do, with the latest being just working on my technique.

    • Thanks for sharing, Daniel. Your point regarding stress management reminded me that this is also very true for me – whenever I am revving a bit too high, a good workout seems to reboot my system and make me much more composed and relaxed. The problem always seems to be finding the time to exercise when I’m really stressed, which is usually when I have too many things on the go already.

  2. I try to live the life I want my children to live. Ultimately that’s what parenting boils down to. And so mornings like this one – coming off a head cold and in studio at 6:50am to tape a radio segment, the run I had planned sure wasn’t fun, but during snuggle time tonight, I’ll be sure to tell my wee ones about it.

    • Great point, Yoni. Not only is maintaining an active lifestyle helpful for ensuring you are around to see your kids grow up, but by leading by example, to see them grow into a balanced active lifestyle as well.

  3. Ash Routen says:


    For me being physically active started on the sports fields aged 5-6 and included many different team games and sports, this was for enjoyment.

    For exercise per se I started running and lifting weights to counter feelings of inadequacy from my ‘weedy’ build, and for reasons of vanity. This peaked in my early university years, until I realised I was never going to be ‘big’ So I did the opposite and tried to be ‘lean and mean’…and gravitated towards road cycling, a sport which celebrates the chicken chest!

    I stopped lifting weights after realising that a good sense of humour as opposed to big muscles gets you further with the opposite sex! Forget behavioural models of PA, the power of perceived attractiveness and women is far more important to most (single) men <30 :)


    • That’s funny, and certainly more true that I appreciated when I was younger. My fiancee also made me realize that most women are not looking for a bodybuilder type, but rather just an naturally athletic look – like that of a soccer player, for example. That knowledge helped shift my focus from trying to get big.

  4. KateClancy says:

    This is a fun question for me, since being active has always been a huge part of my identity. I played organized sports from elementary school through college, a mix of team (soccer, basketball, rugby) and individual (track and field – triple jump, heptathlon) stuff. Then I struggled to figure out what I wanted through much of grad school, aside from maintaining my fitness, running the occasional 5K, and playing in some recreational soccer leagues. Now as a tenure-track professor, I play roller derby for a sanctioned, nationally-ranked league. My motivation for fitness is entirely related to becoming the best, most elite player I can be. More than ever, I read the literature, create my own workouts, and watch my nutritional intake, because competition is very motivating for me.

    Like previous commenters, my fitness is also about leadership. I want to lead my teammates so that they see what the payoff is for working very hard and are inspired to do the same. I want to lead my daughter so she sees that 1) girls can be extremely physical and play contact sports, 2) hard work pays off, and 3) fitness is fun (because holy crap, roller derby is fun). I also think that the way that I’m serious about my sport helps me be more focused and structured as an academic. When I hit the crap out of people on the track, I can be more zen in the next day’s faculty meeting :).

  5. Laura says:

    You raise an interesting question in your post. Like everyone posting here, the reasons that I stay active have changed a lot over the years and now (at age 45) include primarily: stress relief, sleep aide, general health, and weight control. But about 8 years ago I had knee surgery and found I had arthritis in both knees and that meant I had to reevaluate what I was capable of doing.

    Meanwhile, several doctors told me not to do ANY sports or weight training with my bad knees and that, oh well, too bad, you just have to be sedentary or else you risk injury. I thought that was ridiculous, not to mention, completely unthinkable for me since I’ve been active my whole life.

    So it’s been a new challenge to find sports that I can do that keep me injury free and fit. And the more things I do (running, weights, swimming) the more I want to improve, push myself and get stronger. All in all, the health benefits are my main motivation, but I do relish the physical challenge now more than I ever did in high school when I was doing competitive sports.

  6. Penny says:

    What about just having fun? While staying fit, stress relief, and other health benefits as well as the desire to look good definitely contribute to my reasons for staying active, by far the most influential factor for me is simply the enjoyment of it. My main thing is mountain biking, so it’s the thrill of racing down the trail, trying a new challenge (up hill or down), incredible scenery, and also the social component of riding with friends.

    • Great point, Penny. Interesting how you are the only one who listed fun as a motivation. I certainly enjoy a tough workout at the gym, but I’m not sure it’s fun, exactly. Mountain biking, on the other hand – yeah, that’s a ton of fun. Really looking forward to getting back into biking this fall.

  7. Linda says:

    I have been generally active for various reasons over my whole life, including raising three sons that we primarily related to through active weekends camping, snow and water skiing. Now that I am over 60 my primary motivation is that I want to continue being free to do the things I enjoy. The strength to climb 3 flights of stairs to my art class, the freedom to go on a walking tour, the stamina to sail through an overnight passage, the ability to heave luggage when I am traveling for an extended period. I want to keep doing these things my whole life if possible and the fact that I can join an aquafit class or work with a personal trainer or go on a group bicycle tour just adds the social benefit on top of the functional ones.

  8. ProudDaddy says:

    Being the 71-year-old father of a 10-year-old daughter, and believing that all males under the age of 25 are jerks, I’ve got a super incentive to stay as healthy and fit as possible for at least 15 more years! Nuff said.

  9. It’s quite natural for exercise/fitness motivation to change over time. Exercise isn’t fun for me; I need good reasons to do it. Here are mine (at age 57):

    -it keeps you young (fountain of youth)
    -less low back aching
    -injury resistance
    -keep my supraspinatous tendonitis (rotator cuff) in remission
    -prevention dementia, heart disease, and cancer
    -be able to respond adequately to emergency situations
    -weight management
    -more energy to enjoy life (hiking, fishing, camping, horseback riding, horse stall mucking, horse grooming, hay bale wrangling, long walks with others, etc.)


    • Rhodia says:

      I am sorry exercise is not fun for you. I would not be able to keep with it long term if I hadn’t found some forms of exercise that I find fun. Maybe you just need to try more activities till you find one that clicks?

  10. Steve says:

    I was an active cyclist as a kid and in college (lots of century rides and using the bike in place of a car). I never thought I was us good shape, but was at the time. But after getting married, dealing with a house, a career and so on, I became too sedentary. The turn around started 10 years ago when the company I was with downsized and I found myself working out of the house as a consultant. Largely to stay sane I started with an hour walk in place of lunch. A few years ago I started into a more serious exercise program with remote coaching via txt messaging from a young friend 2500 miles away – she was a pro beach volleyball player and in seriously great shape. I managed to go from a BMI of about 29 to 20 and have maintained that for a year and my physical endurance and vital signs have all improved.

    Now I’m feeling much better and, during my last physical my doctor said I’m in better shape than any of his patients who are over 40 – sweet as I just turned 60.

  11. Rhodia says:

    1. I am trying to maintain a 60 pound weight loss.
    2. I want to be healthy now and as I age.
    3. I love running in particular: human movement at its purest. I love participating in races, I love pushing myself to new distances or greater speeds, I love being outside in all seasons, I love how it makes me feel.

    As to past motivations, I was not active in the past…

  12. Steve says:

    Actually I have a good deal of fun with some of it – trying to develop technique for a one person racing scull for example. Not so much for racing as I’m hopeless, but for the beauty of motion. I find the same on my bike when I don’t have to reason with traffic. There is also some pride in trying to exceed the targets my trainer sets and competing with her using a handicapped scheme as she tries for her targets.

    For the long boring exercises I try to loose myself listening to podcasts or music. There isn’t much motivation at my age for “looking” better, although people tell me that.

    I am very careful not to overdo it – to push myself to the point of injury. I want to have something that is sustainable.

  13. I didn’t enjoy exercise in my youth, and that inactivity continued through university. A protracted bout of back pain during my post-graduate training, combined with a modest amount of weight gain, gave me the idea that exercise might help with both. Given my dislike of the gym and team sports, I looked for endurance activities. Running seemed like the easiest and most efficient way to burn calories. I connected with the local Running Room and signed up for a 10k clinic for motivation. I felt better, ate better, lost a bit of weight, and the back pain receded and eventually disappeared. (I don’t believe either cured the back pain, but I don’t think they hurt, either.)

    I really enjoyed the Running Room clinic and the people I met. One clinic led to another and in 18 months I was doing my first marathon. After a few marathons, my focus shifted to triathlons for a few years and I even managed an Ironman just before my first child was born.

    Now I’m a parent of young kids and triathlon training isn’t practical for me. (Pre-Ironman I was working out 25+ hours/week.) So I’m back to mainly running, and just started swimming again regularly. I don’t think I could ever go back to being inactive – exercise is now a part of my daily routine.

    I’m with Yoni. I want to show my kids an active lifestyle. And I want to emphasize activities that they can continue their whole life. Yesterday they asked me for a bike ride and we rode together for an hour. If they love being active now, I’m optimistic it will set the stage for an active lifestyle their whole life.

    • Lesley says:

      I’m proud to say “I knew you when, Scott!” That 10K clinic was 13 years ago!! Holy carp!

      5K… 10K… Half-marathon… try-a-tri… marathon… Half-Ironman… Ironman (x3)… it’s a slippery slope! LOL

      My motivation today is: weight-loss maintenance (80 pounds and counting), because I LOVE it, and for the social aspect. Almost all my friends are runners or triathletes (some fast/competitive, some just plodding along, like me). I love to travel for running, make running part of my social activities (we have Wednesday night “runpub”), and make socializing about activity rather than just about food/drink (though we do a lot of that, too).

      I always “liked” sports as a kid, but I was never particularly athletic, nor did I participate in any organized sports. I didn’t “find myself” althletically until my mid-30s. Becoming active (dare I even say “athletic”?) as I lost weight helped me shift the focus from what my body looked like, to what it could do.

  14. aek says:

    1) pain management – disk and facet disease, cervical dystonia, multiple herniated disks, mild lumbar scoliosis, osteoarthritis in part from injuries and repetitive use in L knee, rt hip and rt thumb base
    2) function – I need almost continual movement in order not to experience searing pain in osteoarthritic joints and in c-spine and ls-spine which becomes too intense to move through
    3) sleep
    4) chronic severe depression
    5) walking is main mode of transportation – activity is a function of meeting basic needs
    6) social interaction (walking/stairs essential to being able to leave home)
    7) purpose in life/quality of life – very restricted now and at risk for losing, but am still able to volunteer for National Park Service habitat restoration and research projects

  15. Nice post! Great to see this blog, which I follow regularly, explore motivational issues in exercise and weight control. I hope there is more in the future.

    Our research group and a number of others focus on issues such as the ones you bring up, which highlight that motivation is not just a matter of “how much” but it involves important qualitative elements (“which exercise-related goals do I seek and why”, “how pressured/choiceful do I feel about pursuing them”, etc.). These appear to be decisive to exercise adherence and to the quality of the exercise/PA experience. And important more broadly to understand how exercise contributes to one’s experience of life.

    Here are links to two recently published reviews on this topic that readers of this blog may find interesting, especially when thinking about long-lasting motivation for exercise/PA and weight control:


    Pedro Teixeira, Ph.D.

  16. Andrew McDowell says:

    I’m now almost 50. When I was about 18 running was booming in the UK thanks to the successes of Ovett, Cram, and Coe. I found Morehouse and Gross’s Total Fitness book in a local library and was impressed by claims of benefits in general life, such as energy level and stamina. I also found that I enjoyed cycling. I work as a computer programmer – a sedentary occupation that tends to require people to also spend a great deal of time commuting in cars. My main motivation is looking at my peers who have sacrificed their bodies to the firm. Some of whom used to be competitive athletes and more physically impressive than myself. Some are now not only carrying too much weight, but often suffering from injuries secondary to that. I’m still cycling but worrying how I will know when and how to ease off so as to keep some level of fitness but not suffer injury in training.

  17. Elianne Sumsara says:

    I am bipolar, and I have PTSD. Working out helps regulate and balance my mood, and also helps me feel strong and confident. Plus, I really enjoy it, esp. when accompanied by music.

  18. Andreas Johansson says:

    I only maintain an active lifestyle for fairly relaxed definitions of “active”, but the reason I bike to work (and pretty much anywhere else I need to go within town) is that driving a car is crazy expensive and collective transportation is dysfunctional. I also walk a few kilometers during lunch break together with some coworkers – it’s a way of socializing and getting out of the office, and after sitting for a few hours I need a break.

    I also pace about and fidget a lot, because I frankly don’t know how not to.

  19. Bess Doyle says:

    It’s so interesting to read everyone’s reasons for working out/being active! I noticed that most of the posters have a pretty athletic background, so my history might add a little to the variation.

    The short version is that I now workout, play judo, and stay active largely for my own satisfaction. It provides time to be alone with my thoughts when I need it, and it also presents a handy way for my partner and I to hang out with each other during the way. I consider being able to sprint like hell for the bus or lift a couch by myself to be a sweet bonus.

    The long version is as follows:
    I started out with the sole motivation to transform myself from a chunky, square, inactive person into a sylph (I often think that if I’d gotten into girls’ rugby or football early, things would have been different: I was just the right shape for either of those sports!). I followed the usual pattern from starting to take long walks in my teens, to jogging/endurance cardio, hiking, etc, for several years, until I realized that I actually find most steady-state cardio to be boring brain torture. I started weightlifting in undergrad, but didn’t go very far until I hit grad school and started training in judo and brazilian jiu jitsu.

    That was the period when I started to go a little crazy: I pushed myself up to twice a day on the mat, in the weight room, and in HIIT workouts, for the twin reasons that I wanted to BE as good at judo as possible, and that I wanted to LOOK as if I was good at judo. (I also sit consistently at the bottom of a weight class, and I really wanted to get down to top of the next one.) That carried on despite more or less continuous overtraining until I started to calm down and listen to wiser heads, who all reject the rhetoric about “training like a beast” at all times, pointing out that all it does is make you miserable and get you injured.

    I still train judo and BJJ three to four times a week, and I fit weightlifting, climbing, sprint intervals, and occasional running in around that. I do all of those things because I enjoy them, and because I enjoy being strong and healthy, but I’m much less driven about maximizing my hours in the gym or on the mat. I commute by walking and occasionally running, defend my sleep time like a wolverine with a moose carcass, and usually leave enough gas in the tank after a workout to have a productive day. I’m much less stressed-out, and – lo – my body’s responded by ditching a bunch of body fat whilst adding muscle mass, without my even telling it to.

    There seems to be a general pattern among women who take up athletics in adulthood that begins with overt concern for body image, peaks with sub-clinical exercise abuse and disordered eating (if not full-blown exhaustion and eating disorder), and eventually resolves with satisfaction in fitness and functional ability becoming the primary motivation, and body image taking a back seat. I would say that characterizes my story quite nicely.

  20. harleymc says:

    None of the activity in my life is associated with sport or with workouts.
    It all comes from hobbies, dancing, housework, walking as a means of transport, and untill a severely painful back injury through my manual jobs.
    I was absolutely traumatised by schools sports and to this day you couldn’t drag me near a sports field or a gym, or get me to watch televised sport.
    I don’t need external motivation, activity is just part of my life.

  21. Jen says:

    For me, my motivations for staying active have been fairly constant over my life (now 36). Sport consistently gives me the opportunity to connect with others with shared interests. Also, sport continues to allow me to see the world in different ways whether it be through the eyes of being a cyclist, Ultimate Frisbee player, springboard diver or gymnast. Each sport brings exciting and unexpected opportunities to experience both the physical and social world in new ways.

  22. Jessica says:

    SO glad I came across this post. I’ve had the great opportunity of researching the question you pose via interviewing/shooting various 40+ year olds who have successfully transformed their lives with fitness, as well as those “lifers” who continue to renew their interest in sports/exercise and maintain a certain level of fitness. What’s their motivation? You can imagine the spectrum of responses, but I wanted to share one particular story we did with a retired Navy Admiral: https://vimeo.com/43912392

    A pre-release sample of our multimedia eBook can be found on Fitbehavior.org in case anyone is interested to check out more. Feedback is very welcome!

    Peter, thanks for prompting the conversation!