All Levels Welcome

When “Motivating” Yourself To Work Out Is More Harmful Than Helpful

You can't beat yourself up into enjoying a workout.

A person with natural curly hair works hard on an elliptical. Motivating yourself to work out by bea...
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This piece is part of Bustle’s All Levels Welcome, a column about making fitness culture as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Everyone needs some kind of motivation to work out. For some, it's breathing fresh air. For others, it's that feeling of getting stronger that comes with all the post-workout aches. But for many, negative reinforcement is the go-to.

Most of us have been there. You don't want to exercise, not today. To pump yourself up, you say you're being "lazy" if you don't do that 15-minute HIIT workout. You tell yourself you're not really depressed, you're just making excuses. Maybe that voice in your head sounds like a parent, or your ex, or that version of yourself that's super judgey.

But you would never say those things to your best friend if she bailed on your socially distant run date. So why would they help you lace up your sneakers? Motivating yourself to work out can have the opposite effect if you're spending as much energy being mean to yourself as you are on kickboxing.

Why Doesn't Negative Reinforcement Help Make You Exercise?

"Every time I've encountered someone maintaining their fitness routine purely out of fear, they were unable to maintain the changes they made," says T'Nisha Symone, founder of luxury fitness club BLAQUE. "I've experienced this in my own journey and continue to unlearn these things for real lasting impact on my wellness. The process of unlearning requires patience."

Symone says motivating yourself with negative self-talk is especially hurtful if you're already go through body-shaming. "If your race, sexuality, gender identity, body type, or anything else about you don't fit what's widely accepted, you're likely combating a lot of negativity already," she says.

"As someone with disordered eating in my past, I've found it explicitly harmful when I take a class that cues aesthetic over function," says Helen Phelan, founder of Helen Phelan Studio. Talking about "burning" fat, "torching" calories, and "getting rid of x, y, or z ugly" part of your body, integrates self-hatred into workouts under the guise of being motivational. "'No pain, no gain' culture uses fear and punishment to keep people engaged," Phelan says, and that's ultimately going to damage people's desire to work out.

But Isn't Working Out Supposed To Suck Sometimes?

Sure, exercise "is going to be uncomfortable at times," says certified personal trainer Shantani Moore. Getting physically stronger is literally a process of breaking your muscles down so they can build themselves back up. That doesn't mean that you have to break down your mind, too.

Moore explains that negative motivation can create a "toxic mental cycle." That's only going to make you associate working out with punishment, and no one needs that.

Shame Can Make Workouts Unnecessarily Painful

"Omitting the terror from workouts welcomes more folks into the scene," says Bianca Russo, a certified personal trainer and founder of virtual fitness service Body Positive Bootcamp. Rather than using fear or shame as a motivator, try emphasizing what you want to learn about yourself through exercise.

"Negative motivation is unsuccessful because it is usually based on shame and guilt," Russo tells Bustle. "This attitude can do a lot of harm to people who have a history of body image issues, body dysmorphia, or eating disorders. Fitness ought to be affirming and individualized."

Bullying yourself into workouts can be traumatic, Phelan says. "A lot of us have so much trauma held in our bodies — whether that has to do with body image or just the coping mechanisms that we've used to process life events — that anything that requires staying present and embodied can feel like an emotionally unsafe space," Phelan tells Bustle. "If we took out this unnecessary, extra layer of shame and in some cases, aggression, we're making movement spaces safer for bodies of all different life experiences and sizes. On top of that, it never hurts to make [your workout] more fun and lighthearted."

Try A More Joyful Approach To Motivation Instead

Treating yourself with kindness is key. Don't shame yourself if you have certain aesthetic desires, Symone says, but try to be present in the moment. "I like to remind myself that I'm strong and think about the things that I have accomplished," she tells Bustle. "My workout playlist is full of artists telling me how amazing I am — because I need that!"

Take it extra easy on yourself during the pandemic, when stress levels are extra high to begin with. If you want to try exercise as a form of self-care, approach it with joy rather than as something you have to do. "Trying to work out once a week is what I would suggest to most beginners," Russo says. "Slowly welcome exercise into your routine and eventually it will become a regular aspect of your lifestyle."

Prioritize self-love rather than bullying slogans, Moore suggests. If you need to slow down or skip the workout entirely, you're not weak or lazy — it's your body telling you to rest. "If you don’t listen to your body, take breaks, recover, and then come back to the work with a healthy approach, then not only is your regimen unsustainable, but you could get injured because you’re overdoing it," Moore says. "Listen to your body, and listen closely. It will tell you everything you need to know."


T'Nisha Symone, founder of BLAQUE

Helen Phelan, founder of Helen Phelan Studio

Bianca Russo, certified personal trainer, founder of Body Positive Bootcamp

Shantani Moore, certified personal trainer