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The Psychological Trick for Exercise Motivation

Ugh. Exercise. I truly have a love/hate relationship with that particular activity. Just typing the word exercise reminds me that I have to do it tonight, and I dread it.

If I allow myself to think about it too much, I’ll talk myself out of doing it. My brain is basically that really convincing friend with the worst attitude saying, “Whoa, dude. You’re gonna get hot. You don’t like being hot, remember? You had a long day at work. Kick back, relax, and eat some bacon-dipped-pizza-ice-cream!” (My brain is all or nothing).

That’s how I feel until I start exercising. It’s the craziest thing: exercise almost immediately goes from the thing I hate the most to the thing I love the most. Suddenly my brain is the crazy weightlifting coach from the school cheering me on. When I start exercising it’s all like, “BEAST MODE! YEAH BABY! HERE COMES THE PAIN! ONE MORRREEEE REEEPPPP!” and I’m all like “I should drink more water and eat a salad for dinner.”

How is it possible that the same activity can be what I hate and what I love at the same time? I don’t think I’m the only one who has noticed this. There is a simple psychological factor behind this and I like the catchy little phrase that goes with it: motion creates emotion.

The secret to exercise motivation is to start exercising. Not what you expected, right? It sounds simple, but the psychological underpinnings are actually somewhat complicated. Motion creates emotion. Our actions (what we do), thoughts (what we think), feelings (our emotions), and physiology (our body’s internal workings) are all connected to each other. We call that connection “total behavior.” All of these components (actions, thoughts, feelings, physiology) are inseparable, and a change in one will result in a change in the others. We cannot directly change our feelings or physiology, but we have control over our actions and thoughts. Actions are the easiest to change.

Think of total behavior as being the four wheels of a car. The front two wheels are actions and thoughts while the back two wheels are feelings and physiology. All four wheels are part of the same car, but which wheels move when we turn the wheel? The front wheels. And where the front wheels go, the back wheels have no choice but to follow.

If you want your feelings and your body’s physiology to get on board you have to do something. Grab the wheel and make a turn. You can use your thoughts or your actions to make a turn, but your actions are the easiest component to work with. Think about it this way: changing total behavior through thoughts is like driving without power steering. It’s doable, but difficult. Take the easier road and change your actions.

Think of the last time you really didn’t feel like going out with your friends, but you did anyway and ended up having a great time. This has happened to all of us. You really wanted to stay home. Your actions (sitting on the couch), thoughts ( “this will not be fun” and “I would rather sleep than go out”), feelings (frustration with your friends for bugging you) and physiology (lethargy) made you sink into the couch and your legs felt like lead.

What happened when you made the decision to take action and go out? You had fun! Consider your actions (going out anyway and moving), thoughts (“this is actually fun” and “I am so glad I came out”), feelings (happy), and physiology (you now have adrenaline pumping through your veins and you feel relaxed while having fun). How did we go from “this will not be fun,” frustrated, and lethargic to “this is actually fun,” happy, and energized? Motion creates emotion.

Exercise is a natural antidepressant. By exercising, you are allowing oxygen to flow through your body and get to your brain, your brain releases the “feel-good” chemicals, your feelings become more positive, and your thoughts improve too. Want to have exercise motivation? Start moving.

Man lifting weights photo available from Shutterstock

The Psychological Trick for Exercise Motivation

Thomas Winterman

Thomas Winterman is a therapist, school counselor, author, and blogger who lives in Panama City, FL. His e-book, The Thrive Life, is available on Amazon. His blog can be found at

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APA Reference
Winterman, T. (2018). The Psychological Trick for Exercise Motivation. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.