The Science-Backed Way to Get Your Exercise Motivation Back

Your workouts might look and feel a bit different — but that’s okay

Danielle Kosecki
Published in
7 min readMar 27, 2020


A photo of a father doing push ups in the living room while his son sits on his back.
Photo: Yasser Chalid/Getty Images

TTwo months ago, I hopped on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon and set a goal of getting back into shape. I signed up for a month of unlimited yoga classes and started cycling again.

But then the coronavirus pandemic happened. Suddenly I was tired and unmotivated. Seeing friends doing workouts together on Zoom and sharing time-lapse videos of their bodyweight routines on Instagram just made me feel worse. A nagging shoulder injury started to flare up again as my muscles tightened, erasing all the progress I had made since January, but it wasn’t enough to get me off the couch. I just didn’t feel like working out.

If, like me, the coronavirus totally threw you into neutral, here’s the good news: Feeling like crap is totally normal.

“Anybody who’s not feeling some anxiety and some fears right now is probably not in touch with what’s going on in the world,” says Richard M. Ryan, PhD, co-developer of the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a leading and internationally recognized theory of human motivation.

But to understand why — and how you can break free from this funk — you have to dive a bit deeper into the science of motivation.

What is motivation?

In the simplest terms, motivation is your drive to do something. It’s the psychological process your brain undertakes to gather information —that is, the perceived difficulty of the task, potential rewards, past experiences — and decide whether to pursue a goal.

But according to SDT, not all motivation is created equal. “Self-Determination Theory places the quality of motivation on a continuum whereby different types of motivation differ in the extent to which they are autonomous or controlled,” write British researchers in a 2020 study in Psychology of Sport & Exercise. Here’s how they explain it:

Autonomous motivation is comprised of three types of behavioral regulation:

  • Intrinsic motivation, the most autonomous, is characterized by enjoyment and satisfaction of being active.
  • Integrated regulation is…



Danielle Kosecki

Former magazine editor and current freelance reporter who spends way too much time on PubMed. Let’s hang out: @dkos07. (she/her)