A Look at Intrinsic and Extrinsic Health & Fitness Motivation

A Look at Intrinsic and Extrinsic Health & Fitness Motivation

What drives you? What motivates you to improve your appearance and health?

Think about this question. It's more important than you may think.

I'm about to take you into a world no one talks about; the realm of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. A realm that either leads to happiness and enjoyment or torture, depression and maybe even borderline (or beyond) mental health issues.

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Right now you're probably confused. What the heck is intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Let me explain.

Intrinsic motivation. Doing something because you simply enjoy it; the act is naturally satisfying.

Extrinsic motivation. Doing something to avoid a bad outcome or to gain approval and attention.

These are simplistic definitions, but the will work. Let's dive in deeper. Both forms of motivation can have merit, while both can also have detrimental qualities.

Intrinsic Motivation

On the surface, intrinsic motivation seems like the best form of motivation to have. You are doing something because you enjoy it.

Let's travel back in time to your high school days. Picture the classes you enjoyed. Homework was easier because you found the topic satisfying and interesting.

This is intrinsic motivation. You liked the subject and homework was fairly effortless.

Not think about the subjects you hated. Hate is a strong word, but I know I had a few subjects that I really, really disliked.

Homework was a slog. It felt like hell on Earth, but you did it anyway because you knew if you didn't that you would fail. This is extrinsic motivation. You disliked the work but finished it to avoid consequences; in this case crappy grades and all the possible negatives that come with them.

Angry parents. Having to repeat the class. Maybe even life as a garbage man.

Now let's think about things we like to do a little too much.

Video games. Internet pornography. Mindlessly flipping through your Instagram or YouTube feed at 1 a.m. when you should be sleeping.

I know some of you may be chuckling right now but this is serious business. Intrinsic motivation can drive us to do things we enjoy a little too much. It can even lead us to develop unhealthy addictions to exercise.

When I was in college I enjoyed the bodybuilding lifestyle way too much. I would force myself to eat every 2.5 hours because I believed it would maximize the muscle building process. I made sure to get at least eight hours of sleep each night even if it meant missing a class or two.

I enjoyed lifting so much that it eventually crippled my grades. I was forced to leave school.

While this is an extreme case, we still have to be self-monitoring. Intrinsic motivation can consume us to the point where things we enjoy actually destroy relationships and other goals.

Extrinsic Motivation

On the surface, extrinsic motivation seems like the worst form of motivation to have. You are doing something you don't really like to avoid punishment or consequences or to gain the approval or attention of others.

No one should be spending time doing what they dislike in life, right?


I won't lie. I enjoying eating pizza and drinking beer more than I do eating broccoli and chicken. Don't get me wrong; I know how to cook. I can take nearly any whole foods ingredient and make it tasty.

But I still prefer pizza and beer. They are more intrinsically satisfying.

Instead, I rely on whole foods because I know there are consequences that come from a fast food diet.

Think of obesity. It contributes to diabetes, osteoarthritis, increases the likelihood of many forms of cancer, and on and on. For those of us that don't intrinsically enjoy exercise and healthy eating, it's important to remind ourselves to do the right thing.

I don't like eating veggies! Then accept the consequences.

I can't give up my sugary snacks! Then accept the consequences.

I don't like exercise! Then accept the consequences.

For many of you, the reality of consequences will hit after it's too late. Poor health will set in when there's very little time left to fix things.

Don't be that person. Take action know and remind yourself of the consequences.

But what about doing things to please, or seek attention from others? This is only a bad thing if it's an unhealthy thing. Sound redundant? Not really, if you think about it.

I want to be honest with you here and give you something to consider. When you take care of yourself people will respect you more. When you take care of yourself people tend to notice.

There is some value in the extrinsic motivation to look better so others notice or respect you. We are what we do, and like it or not we are being judged and assessed everywhere we go.

This extrinsic motivation only because unhealthy when it's taken to an unbalancing extreme; when we define our value by the opinion of a small group of people.

It becomes unhealthy when deep into depression or worries over things we make up in our minds; the belief that if we don't do X, Y, or Z that everyone will view us as less than human.

There are so many layers to this discussion. I couldn't possibly comment on all the complexities.

Take Home

Just remember the point. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be valuable tools. Make sure to analyze your actions and habits to make sure they are not unhealthy and unbalancing.

Sometimes we do things because we enjoy them, and sometimes to avoid consequences. In reality, life is rarely black and white. We usually reach after goals for a myriad of reasons, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

I lift and run because I enjoy it. I also lift and run because I want my wife to find me hot; well as hot as possible for a big, hairy, ugly dude. 

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