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How to Increase Desire for Exercise

Updated: Mar 22

Backstory: At a wellness fair last year, we* met dozens of people ages 25 - 65 and taught them simple activities to test strength, balance and mobility, for example:

  1. Standing on one foot for 10 seconds

  2. Testing grip strength

  3. Raising arms overhead and shoulder mobility exercises

  4. Squatting to a chair, box or the floor

  5. Getting up and down off the floor

We noticed a theme in our conversations. People shared three kinds of information freely, such as:

  • “I used to …” [lift weights, run, CrossFit, mountain bike, go to Jazzercise, be a competitive dancer / cheerleader …]

  • “My [body part] hurts when I…” [sit at my desk all day, get out of my car, go up and down stairs…]

  • “And I need to … ” [go to the gym, take a class, call my doctor, get into physical therapy]

When we asked “what do you want to do for exercise,” non-exercisers usually answered with what they couldn’t do and why.

Most people who were not exercising talked about the past when they did and a future in which they will. They were not being either one. It was fascinating because the conversations were similar.

I noticed that when there was a flicker of desire to exercise right now, to do something and move their bodies, they knew how to put out those sparks.


Because it's human to look for reasons why we can't.

Thinking about exercise triggers objections in our primitive brain because exercise: 

  • uses energy; 

  • might trigger pain; 

  • and may be uncomfortable -- emotionally and/or physically.

Here are examples of how we talk to ourselves and others when our brains go looking for reasons to ignore our desire to move: 

  • "I could go to a class near my office but then I hit traffic on the way home."

  • "Taking a dance class sounds like fun – but I need different shoes for that."

  • "There’s a basketball court by my apartment – but it might be weird to go alone."

  • "Morning runs felt great – but I don’t want to sprain my ankle running in the dark."

  • "Everybody’s [insert popular activity here] [playing pickleball] [doing Pilates] – and I don’t want to go crazy like that!"

Our inner critics and their accomplices bring their firehose to a barbecue.

When we believe our objections as fact and double down, we ignore our desire. 

And yet, we are wired to move our bodies.

When we ignore desire, we cannot see solutions.

And then we erode self-trust and our own well-being.

Here’s the good news: we can learn to increase desire for exercise. (It's not the same feeling as motivated, although that improves, too.)

The first step to increasing desire is to notice that it wants your attention. So, become more aware and learn:

  • How desire is created (with our thoughts)

  • What desire feels like (in your body) 

  • How you respond or react to it (e.g., arguing? ignoring? allowing?)

  • What you want to do with it

Becoming aware is like plugging a hole in the bucket where desire was leaking.

Then the second step is to ask ourselves good questions, e.g.:

  • What would happen if I liked shooting baskets alone and in pickup games?

  • What are three reasons why a class after work makes life better not harder?

  • Which "crazy" friend do I want to spend more time with and could teach me how to play pickleball?

The third and fourth steps to increasing our desire for exercise are to:

  • Become a curious student of an activity that you choose; and

  • Be kind to yourself when you do it.

Our exercise self-talk predicts our success at creating an exercise habit.

How we talk about it matters as much (or more) than what we do.

If this sounds interesting (and sports psychology-like), you may enjoy this article that I wrote for Austin Fit magazine in 2022. I interviewed Dr. Hillary Cauthen, Austin-based Clinical Sport Psychologist, CMPC. She is author of a new book about transforming experience for resilience and growth, Hello Trauma: Our Invisible Teammate. “Our thoughts always lead to our feelings, our desire and what we do," she explains.

Increasing desire means learning to fill your own bucket -- before, during and after you exercise.

This is how we keep moving.

*we = a dear Pilates teacher friend / client / school counselor and beautiful human

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