Don’t let guilt motivate you to exercise

The hardest part of consistently exercising is finding the motivation to do it.

But using the wrong type of motivation could work against you, and even have consequences for your mental health.

Our research, which investigated the motivations of 650 frequent exercisers, found that people who believed things like “I am a loser if I do not succeed in things that matter to me” and “I have to be viewed favourably by people that matter to me” were more likely to use self-pressure and wanting to avoid guilt as motivation to exercise.

Not only was this group more likely to not want to exercise at all, but those who used guilt and self-pressure as motivation were at greater risk of experiencing poor mental health.

The tendency to hold dogmatic beliefs like “I must” or “I have to”, and harmful beliefs about yourself creates a negative and unhealthy approach to exercise.

But the darker side of this mindset is that people who held these beliefs reported higher symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress compared with exercisers who didn’t use self-pressure and guilt as motivation.

Research shows that extreme, rigid, negative ways of thinking are risk factors for mental health problems. Repeating negative thoughts many times, over many years, could lead to a continuous state of stress and depression.

On the other hand, our study found that people who reported fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress had significantly less extreme, rigid and negative ways of thinking.

These participants were less likely to endorse ways of thinking that involved self-demands, magnification, and self-condemnation.

These exercisers reported using more useful forms of motivation to work out, such as exercising because they loved the activity and recognised the value and importance of exercise as a part of their identity.

One solution to negative ways of thinking is a psychological approach called rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT).

REBT aims to understand and challenge deeply held beliefs and develop helpful alternatives.

This approach may help an exerciser go from “I have to exercise” and “I’d be worthless if I didn’t exercise” to thinking “I really want to exercise, and if I didn’t exercise, I would be disappointed, but I would not be worthless”.

Improving a person’s beliefs about exercise could change their motivation from being centred on self-pressure and guilt to seeing the value and potential enjoyment in working out.

If you find yourself falling into a cycle of self-loathing and losing motivation to exercise, here’s what you can do:


Be more critical of your thoughts about exercise, and ask yourself if they’re helping you.

If the answer is no, try to work on adopting thoughts that help you achieve your exercise goals, such as seeing exercise as something to enjoy, instead of something you have to do.

Being able to challenge your own unhelpful beliefs, and learning to harness more helpful ones could help you achieve your goals.


As human beings we mess up, but we also do great things. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s important to try and accept this. And remember that failing doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

Realise that you aren’t defined by your shortcomings.


You’re far more likely to stick to your exercise goals if you want to do them. Find an activity that offers you something more than just exercise. Perhaps join an exercise group where you could make new friends or rekindle your passion for something you used to do.

If you’re only exercising because you believe you have to or to avoid guilt, you probably won’t stick with it.

Exercise is, of course, important, but guilting yourself into doing it will probably do more harm than good.

The best is to find things you enjoy, accepting yourself unconditionally if your motivation does wane, and removing “have to” from your thoughts about exercise.

– The Conversation

*Martin Turner is a reader in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

*Anthony Miller is a senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Staffordshire University.

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