Gym Motivation: What’s Really Driving Men to Exercise?


What drives you to sweat it out in the gym? Your first thought is probably “health and fitness,” but are those your true motivators? There might be some underlying drivers hiding below the surface, like an unhappiness over body fat, subconsciously pushing you to work out, according to according to new research from the University of Lincoln.  

In the study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers gave 100 men a questionnaire to assess their incentives for working out. All 100 men had slightly high BMIs and reported they work out for about an hour two to three times weekly. While 60 percent claimed health and fitness was their main reason for exercising, only 16 percent labeled their appearance as the motivating factor, and eight percent said training and competing in amateur bodybuilding was the driving factor. At least that’s what they said…

They then responded to statements about their body image, like “seeing my reflection makes me feel bad about my body fat and muscularity,” as well as evaluated statements designed to expose their motivation, such as “I feel under pressure to exercise or work out regularly from people I know well.” These were scored on a scale from one to four, with one being not very true and four being very true. 

A second test revealed their non-conscious motivation to exercise; it measured how long it took the men to associate particular words with themselves. It paired positive and negative feelings about exercising, such as ‘spontaneous’ and ‘willing’ or ‘restricted’ and ‘forced’, with words relating to the self and others, such as ‘me’ and ‘mine’ or ‘they’ and ‘theirs’, the researchers explain in a press release.

Based on these assessments, researchers found men’s hidden fears over their body image and body fat are fueling gym attendance more than a desire to build muscle or become healthier. The researchers found men who worried about body fat were more likely than others to undertake spontaneous, unplanned workouts. Their attitudes towards muscle or BMI didn’t predict how frequently they’d attend the gym, but their perceptions of body fat did.

The problem is these “sporadic” gym sessions aren’t sustainable for the long-term or conducive to a healthy regimen. 

The findings could help health and fitness professionals improve gym attendance by setting proactive goals that aren’t as centered around body image. For instance, you can encourage yourself to gain 5 pounds of muscle and strengthen body imbalances, rather than harping on belly fat and honing all your efforts on one specific body part; or, incorporate aerobic exercise 3-4 days a week to improve your heart health, rather than slaving away at cardio to drop more pounds. Framing things more positively can create healthy habits. 

“Coaches, trainers, and even ‘gym buddies’ need to be aware of individuals’ motivations and reasons for attending a gym,” study author David Keatley said in a press release. “Spontaneous gym goers are more likely to be motivated by guilt, shame or pressure, so it’s important to turn this around and place a focus on positive feelings of achievement and pride, fostering a long-term healthier behavior change.”

If you’re struggling to stifle self-doubt and insecurities, read 16 Ways to Feel More Confident

“Anyone can be affected by what they see online, the social cues images can give, and the popular conceptions of an ‘ideal body image’. With the recent growth of ‘selfies’ and the return of muscle-bound Hollywood hero icons like Vin Diesel and Hugh Jackman, there’s a real risk that males may be more influenced to attend the gym more regularly and workout to a point where it becomes dangerous or detracts from their wellbeing,” Keatley adds.

Now, while the muscled physiques you see on our covers might seem unachievable (remember this is their job; their day revolves around eating right and working out—with all with top nutritionists, trainers, and experts), that doesn’t mean you can’t take some inspiration from them. Check out Best Workout Motivation and Advice: The Most Inspiring Celebrity Mantras of All Time.  

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