Take Ownership of Your Exercise Habits To Build Better Motivation

You can improve your motivation and the likelihood of exercising consistently just by changing your mindset and taking ownership of your exercise experience.

Building long-term motivation and consistent exercise habits are the most valuable things you can do for yourself. Many mindset shifts can help you achieve those goals, and here I’ll address an important one: taking ownership of your exercise.

The feeling that you are in control of your choices and actions is known as autonomy.

Building long-term motivation and consistent exercise habits are the most valuable things you can do for yourself. Many mindset shifts can help you achieve those goals, and here I’ll address an important one: taking ownership of your exercise.

The feeling that you are in control of your choices and actions is known as autonomy.

According to the Self-Determination Theory1, autonomy is one of the three primary factors for creating intrinsic motivation.

It’s the type of motivation that comes from enjoying the activity itself, and it’s the best type of motivation for sticking to an exercise program.

The Power of Autonomy

A 2009 study2 had participants exercise on a treadmill for 30 minutes. In the first session, they could adjust the treadmill speed to whatever they liked. They couldn’t see the control panel display, so they didn’t know precisely the rate.

About a week later, they came back and did another 30 minutes on the treadmill. This time the participants were told that the researchers were going to set the speed for them.

They didn’t know that the researchers set the treadmill to the same speed that the participant had chosen in the first session.

Before, during, and after the exercise, the participants rated their enjoyment and motivation. Even though they were doing the same workout, they enjoyed it more and felt more motivated when choosing their speed.2

Other research backs this up. Many studies have examined the relationship between cardio intensity and how pleasurable or enjoyable the exercise is. These studies have found that exercise changes from pleasant to unpleasant for most people around the ventilatory threshold or lactate threshold.3

Those two thresholds are slightly different, but they both correspond to the point at which you start breathing heavily.

An Exception to the Ventilatory Threshold

When you pass that point, your workout starts to feel unpleasant. That means interval training, sprinting, or other high-intensity workouts are usually not enjoyable, at least not while you’re doing it. Interestingly, though, there is an exception.

  • In research studies, the researchers usually control the treadmill speed or incline during the experiments. Once they increase the speed past that heavy breathing threshold, participants start to dislike the exercise they’re doing.
  • In a couple of studies, though, participants were allowed to choose their exercise intensity. When people increased their intensity to or past the heavy breathing point, they didn’t experience that same decrease in pleasure. It still felt good to them.
  • In one of those studies, for example,19 women did three treadmill tests.4 The researchers set the treadmill intensity in two trials, once below their lactate threshold and once above it. They also did a third test where they were allowed to set the intensity themselves. During each test, they rated how the exercise felt.

On average, they chose an intensity around their lactate threshold.

That intensity should decrease exercise enjoyment, but these participants rated the exercise as feeling much better when setting the treadmill themselves than in either of the other tests. In interviews afterward, they talked about feeling in control and making their own choice as one reason the exercise felt better to them.

When they chose their intensity, they were also more confident that they could handle the exercise and felt it was just challenging enough for them.

Those feelings could describe competency or your belief in yourself and your abilities, which is another one of the three factors in developing intrinsic motivation.

Some people worry that if they choose their exercise intensity without pushing the limits, they won’t exercise hard enough to get the benefits they want. That wasn’t the case in this study.

Exercising at your lactate threshold is enough to improve fitness and get the many health benefits of exercise.

These participants weren’t regular exercisers. They were only eligible for the study if they had exercised less than once a week for six months.

Consistent exercisers usually self-select higher intensities than non-exercisers do, so they would be even more likely to choose (and enjoy) higher intensity exercise, which has even more significant potential to improve their health and fitness.

What Does This Mean for You?

You can improve your motivation and be more likely to exercise consistently just by changing your mindset and reframing your exercise experience:

Exercise is a gift; you don’t have to exercise. You get to exercise.

Furthermore, you get to choose the exercise you do. Take ownership of your workout by deciding for yourself which exercises you will do, how you will structure the exercises, and how hard you’ll work.

Basic Guidelines for Effective Exercise Are Flexible

There are basic guidelines for effective exercise, but there is a lot of flexibility in those guidelines. Anyone can learn enough about exercise to make their own exercise choices safely and effectively.

  • Do some cardio, use heavyweights to push, pull, squat, and hinge, and move as much as you can throughout each day. Choose a way to move and lift that you enjoy.
  • If you need more guidance in the form of a made-for-you program or a group class or trainer, at least take ownership of your movement within that program.
  • Choose the program based on your goals, and learn about the exercises so you can understand why you’re doing them.

If nothing else, take ownership of each movement as you do it. When it’s time to sprint, don’t think,

“Ugh, my trainer says it’s time to go all-out, so I have to do it now.” Instead, think, “I’m choosing to go all-out right now because I know it will benefit me.”

Choose to exercise:

  • Because it’s going to make you feel good (afterward, if not during)
  • Because it’s going to give you a sense of pride and achievement
  • Because it’s going to help you get a little fitter so you can have more energy to do the things you love

Overall, remember that you are in charge of your choices, so choose to do something great for yourself and get moving.


1. Teixeira, Pedro J., Eliana V. Carraça, David Markland, Marlene N. Silva, and Richard M. Ryan. “Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: a systematic review.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9, no. 1 (2012): 1-30.

2. Vazou-Ekkekakis, Spiridoula, and Panteleimon Ekkekakis. “Affective consequences of imposing the intensity of physical activity: Does the loss of perceived autonomy matter?” Hellenic Journal of Psychology 6, no. 2 (2009): 125-144.

3. Ekkekakis, Panteleimon, Gaynor Parfitt, and Steven J. Petruzzello. “The Pleasure and Displeasure People Feel When They Exercise at Different Intensities.” Sports Medicine 41, no. 8 (2011): 641-671.

4. Rose, Elaine A., and Gaynor Parfitt. “A quantitative analysis and qualitative explanation of the individual differences in affective responses to prescribed and self-selected exercise intensities.” Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 29, no. 3 (2007): 281-309.

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