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Pushing past the boundaries: How to find the motivation to exercise

Inertia is a principle of physics that says a body at rest tends to stay at rest. This may explain why for some people it may be difficult to get moving and to exercise. But the principle of inertia also says that a body at rest can be put into motion if it encounters a force. And when it comes to putting your body in motion and being physically active, motivation might be the force needed. It is a well-known fact that participating in regular physical activity has many health benefits. The American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on a weekly basis. Yet, some individuals remain physically inactive and there may be a variety of reasons why. Some people think that physical activity means long, grueling, and punishing workouts at the gym. Other individuals may not know how to start a fitness routine or feel intimidated and out of place walking into a gym. Or it may be a case of having a packed schedule that leaves little time for exercising. Debra Stroiney, Academic Program Coordinator (Graduate) and associate professor in the Kinesiology program at George Mason University’s School of Kinesiology, shared some tips on how people can overcome challenges and roadblocks that might otherwise keep them from exercising or engaging in some form of physical activity.

Motivation is easier to come by when you are engaging in a physical activity that you like

The first step in motivating yourself to become physically active is to choose an activity that you enjoy doing, whether it is running, playing tennis, lifting weights, or something else that involves movement. If you enjoy what you are doing, you are more likely to stick with it and make it the centerpiece of your exercise routine. When incorporating physical activity into your day, it does not necessarily have to be what is traditionally thought of as exercise or a structured workout. Instead, it can be a hobby such as gardening, or a pastime that might include biking, dancing, hiking, or any other number of activities involving movement. Exercise physiologists remind us that physical activity is movement and when you move, your body receives the health benefits that come with being active.

Goal setting should be SMART

When some people begin a fitness program, they often make the mistake of setting goals that are unrealistic. The inability to meet those goals can lead to a psychological setback which can derail an individual’s motivation to continue exercising. Inherent in the goal setting process in any physical fitness program are important behavioral considerations that determine a person’s capacity for resiliency in the face of obstacles or disappointments. Exercise scientists recommend that goals incorporate the SMART principle so that they are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based. Whether an individual is working with a trainer, a coach, or going it alone, the SMART approach breaks down large goals into smaller, attainable steps that can better reflect the progress an individual is making. Success in achieving these smaller, incremental goals can help build a person’s confidence and provide them with the motivational boost they need to continue to work toward their larger goals.

In determining what constitutes a realistic goal under the SMART method, it is important to start with a baseline assessment of an individual’s overall physical condition and health. Ideally, this assessment is done by a professional coach or trainer who can evaluate an individual’s cardiovascular health, strength, and flexibility to determine what they can do regarding physical activity. Establishing goals based on these initial assessments will provide benchmarks by which an individual’s progress in reaching their fitness goals can be more easily monitored.


Once a fitness plan and goals are established, it is important to adopt a strategy that holds an individual accountable in remaining faithful to the commitment they made. One way in which this can be done is through the implementation of an exercise contract which stipulates specific goals in writing. The agreement is signed by the individual and an “accountability partner” which can be a friend, trainer, coach, or family member. Having an accountability partner can help an individual stay on track in their fitness journey and can serve as a source of support, encouragement, and motivation.

In addition, smart phones and wearable devices with apps that monitor the number of steps taken, heart rate, blood pressure, and other fitness metrics can be valuable tools in holding an individual accountable and helping them meet their exercise goals.

Exercise is Medicine

Recent studies have shown a strong link between exercise and mood which has prompted some exercise scientists to suggest that the disciplines of physiology and psychology may not be as separate and distinct from one another as once thought—at least when it involves physical activity. Studies in which the level of electrical impulses in volunteers are monitored during periods of exercise show increased activity in those portions of the brain that control mood and cognitive functioning. Studies have also shown elevated levels of endorphins, a natural pain killer found in the body, following sessions of intense physical activity and exercise. The evidence from this research supports the notion that exercise is medicine and that physical activity can be used to treat not only an array of physical ailments, but certain mood disorders as well.

For more information on degree offerings in the Kinesiology program in the School of Kinesiology at George Mason University, please visit the program website.