How do You Build up Motivation for Fitness? The “RISE” Model has Your Back

The fuel to crush your dreams, goals, and desires.

by Alex Auerbach, PHD.

The new year is around the corner… which means there are about to be a plethora of fitness New Year’s Resolutions (about two-thirds of them, actually). But by the time February rolls around, almost half of those people have already abandoned their behavior. Which begs the question: How do you build up motivation for fitness in a way that sticks, so we can actually hold ourselves to our goals?

This post deals with two core questions — what is motivation, and how do you build and maintain it?

And so today, we want to share our answer: the RISE model of motivation. This is a simple, actionable 4-dimension model developed by our team of PHD’s with decades coaching top performers. It draws on self-determination theory, theories of future selves, research around incentives, intrinsic motivation and a whole lot more. But don’t worry — it’s really easy!

Basically, for any goal or behavior you want to change, fitness or otherwise, you’ll feel far more motivated to see it through if you apply the following criteria:

R — Relate it to Others — Either loved ones or even your future self.
I — Incentivize — Self-impose rewards to motivate yourself along the way.
S — Socialize — Find people who can support and encourage your goal.
E — Engage — Find a way to make your activity engaging.

We’ll dive into this more throughout the post. For now, let’s just say that by using this model, we can motivate ourselves harder and longer toward almost any goal — from getting out of bed on a rainy day to running our first marathon.

But in order to really understand the efficacy of this RISE model, we need to start at the beginning…

What is Motivation and Why is It Important for Fitness?

silhouette of three women running on grey concrete road

Dig into the word “motivation,” and you find the root “motive” — aka the reason we take action toward, well, anything! Something motivated you to get out of bed this morning, brush your teeth, read this post, or run wind-sprints uphill in the pouring rain.

Some behaviors are unconsciously motivated — actions either taught to us from a young age or driven by instinct. Like fear of dangerous things (either in reality or to our egos) or hunger leading us to eat, driven by the desire to stay alive.

Some motivation is conscious; we take actions not necessarily because they’re natural, easy, or fun (cough wind-sprints cough), but because success is driven by a larger desire, either internally or externally motivated.

When it comes to fitness, motivation is the difference between hitting our big goals or slowly fading out; between 6 am runs and procrastination. We can have a positive mindset, the biggest ambitions, and an eye toward success — but none of that comes to fruition without the fuel to motivate.

All of which is to say, motivation is less of a “what” and more of a “why.” And that “why” — our cause for action — makes all the difference in the intensity and duration of our motivation. Which brings us to our next topic…

Why Do We Lack Motivation for any activity?

There are three primary reasons people feel unmotivated to exercise, or struggle to stick with fitness over time:

1) We don’t value it enough: On the great totem pole of life — education, career, and family obligations tend to get carved well before exercise. By the time we consider fitness, our energy level is too low to convert that thought into action.

2) We don’t feel engaged: “You expect me to go in there, with ‘Abs McGee’ and a bunch of foreign whirligigs and thingamajigs? Hell to the no.”

In other words, fitness can feel hard and scary, not to mention physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. We humans are predisposed to avoid such things. But if we can find a way to make it comfortable, and even, dare I say, “fun,” that changes everything.

3) We’re being pushed into it: Research finds we’re less likely to feel motivated when fueled by a feeling of “needing to” do something rather than truly “wanting to” do it. That’s the difference between extrinsic motivation (external pressure; rewards) and intrinsic motivation (rooted in interest, enjoyment, and/or values).

Now, that said, the research also says certain types of extrinsic motivation can provide a brief motivational spark. Let’s break it down…

👎 The bad — Negative Extrinsic Motivation: Social pressure is a primary example of a bad extrinsic motivator, and fitness is rotten with it. Media shaping our ideal body image; pressure from family and friends; influencers telling us exactly how to look and eat and work out — none of that is effective in sustaining motivation unless it supports our authentic goals and values (more on that soon).

👌 The good — Positive Extrinsic Motivation: External rewards can give us a motivational lift when those rewards are earned (we’re talkin’ 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place medals, not 15th place). That’s where “Incentivize” fits into the RISE model. It’s important to note, though, that while they’re effective, these sparks can be short lived. That’s why we always need intrinsic motivators.

👍 The amazing — Intrinsic Motivation: This is the good stuff: the part of us that wants to work out (or do anything else) because we feel it’s important — even if we don’t enjoy it (but if we do, that’s great!). In a nutshell, intrinsic motivation aligns with our values; the deeper the value, the stronger the motivation.

Think about every Superhero film you’ve ever watched. How much harder does our hero fight when things get personal? Their love interest gets chucked off a bridge, and they dive off no questions asked… then brush themselves off, and launch back into battle, bruised and battered.

Their value is to keep their love interest safe, or maybe to fulfill a childhood promise to a parent (followed by saving all of humanity). If the mayor threw a gold medal around their neck that read “City’s #1 Hero,” that would be motivating too, but it’s the deep, personal values that ultimately keep them fighting.

Basically, if life were a sci-fi tale, intrinsic motivation is the elixir of immortality.

Now for the big questions… how do we move past our limitations, and find the intrinsic motivation we need to sustain our fitness motivation?

Let’s leave the sci-fi behind, and just look at the science.

Motivating our Behaviors with “Self-Determination Theory”

human hand holding plasma ball

If you google “Self-Determination Theory” (SDT), you’ll find a series of studies that you may or may not find interesting, depending on your propensity for phrases like “continuum of behavioral regulation autonomy.”

If that whets your appetite, by all means, dive in. If not, allow me to break it down, and show you what SDT is, and it’s critical role in building motivation for fitness.

SELF-DETERMINATION THEORY is a theory that says, as its name suggests — our motivation is highest when we feel a sense of independence and choice as we pursue our goals, driven by our own unique values (shout out to intrinsic motivation). In essence, we feel more motivated when:

‣ We feel autonomous control over our actions.
‣ We feel our actions positively affect the outcomes.
‣ We feel connected to and supported by people who recognize our independence.

If Self-Determination Theory were a nation-state, this would be the motto on the flag:

“We control our actions. Those actions affect the outcome. We choose our people.”

Does that read as a little “cult-ey”? Sure does! But don’t let that dilute the message. When we live out these three factors of self-determination, we are FAR more likely to spark intrinsic and sustainable motivation.

Case Study Time

Let’s illustrate how we can use SDT can help us overcome those lack-of-motivation issues I mentioned earlier:

Meet Lauren. Lauren was a decent tennis player in high school. And while that feels like high school was just yesterday, her 1982 senior picture says otherwise. Now, Lauren has two kids at home, a successful consulting business, and just purchased a house in dire need of re-painting. In short, fitness was the last thing on Lauren’s mind…

Until she went in for her annual physical yesterday, and her doctor said something like “nothing to be overly concerned with — just, er, try to work a little physical fitness into your schedule.”


So today, Lauren put on her running shoes, and jogged a very long, very painful, very demotivating mile, which filled her head with thoughts like, “I don’t have time for this sh*t. I can just eat healthier. That’s basically the same thing, right?”

In short…

‣ Lauren’s lack of competence makes her feel uncomfortable and out of control.
‣ She’s not convinced it will really make a difference, at least more than diet alone
‣ And her motivation is coming from Doctor’s orders (extrinsic), rather than her own core values (intrinsic)

So what Lauren needs to do is transition from feeling extrinsically motivated to do something that feels uncomfortable → to feeling intrinsically motivated to do something she feels control over, and in an ideal world, even enjoys!

SDT to the rescue!

Lauren writes out a list of factors she controls in her fitness pursuits:

‣ “I can start by walking. That’s enough for now, and the science says 10,000 steps per day will impact my health.”
‣ “I can set my schedule so I exercise in the morning”
‣ “I can splurge on a new pair of extra comfy running shoes, because that feels good to me!”

Lauren also writes how her fitness will affect her values. Yes, she knows exercise is good for her health, and that it’ll improve her beach bod, but that’s not really why she cares. Instead, she writes “I’ll have more energy when playing with my kids, and set a positive example for them.”

→ She values her children more than anything, and that’s the thing that’ll motivate her to lace up her shoes day after day after day.

Finally, Lauren calls up Holly, a parent-friend who’s also trying to get into fitness, and invites her to join for walks three times a week. If Holly doesn’t stick with it, that’s okay! Lauren’s values are enough to drive her forward no matter what. And hey, there are plenty of Facebook groups and other communities to provide motivation.

Note that Lauren does NOT invite Candice, who’s obsessed with vanity. Nothing wrong with that, except Candice can be pushy. She constantly talks about weight and beach season and blah blah blah…

Besides, Lauren knows Candice’s competitive side will slant things more intensely than she wants. And ultimately, this journey is all about Lauren’s comfortability, pace, and values.

Okay. I get it — that’s a lot to take in. Which is why we used the science of Self-Determination Theory to craft an actionable model you can use to stay motivated for your fitness goals (and most other things too).

The "RISE" Model of Motivation

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The RISE model leans on the scientific theory you just learned, and distills it down into four criteria to boost motivation in your fitness pursuits. It’s like distilling a glossary of the best French cooking techniques into one concise recipe. Only in this case, we’re cooking up motivation (smells good, doesn’t it?).

For any fitness goal you have, big or small, answer the following questions to RISE to the challenge:

R — Relate it to Others — “How will my fitness positively affect people I love or my future self?”
I — Incentivize — “What reward(s) can I use to incentivize my fitness?”
S — Socialize — “Who can I connect with who shares my common values, be it cooperative or competitive?”
E — Engage — “How do I make fitness more interesting to me?”

Let’s break it down, one at a time…

R — Relate it to Others:

The question: “How will this positively affect people I love or my future self?”
The rationale: Working out might not feel like it affects others, but it does. And when we internalize the effect it has — on others OR our future self-actualized selves — we push even harder.
Examples: My journey toward benching 200 pounds can inspire my children to prioritize fitness in their lives. It can also help me become the type of person who perseveres and hits tough challenges. Boom!

I — Incentivize:

The question: “What reward can I use to incentivize myself?”
The rationale: Incentives that connect back to our values can spark that “good” extrinsic motivation I mentioned earlier.
Example: After running, I’ll get myself a green smoothie from that place I absolutely love!

S — Socialize:

The question: “Who can I connect with who share my common values, be it cooperative or competitive?”
The rationale: When we share the journey with others who respect our values, and maybe even engage in the activity with us, we feel more fulfilled and motivated. This element can be either cooperative or competitive. For example, 95 percent of people who did a workout course with a friend finished it. Another study found competition is the most motivating factor in fitness.
Cooperative — Find a walking partner or an online community of like minded fitness individuals.
Competitive — Join an intramural league, or smack talk your workout buddy (in a respectful way) to push each other harder.

E — Engage

The question: “How do you make it more interesting to you?”
The rationale: We’re more likely to stick with activities we find engaging, or can find a way to make it engaging.
Examples: Using the “Zombies, Run!” mobile app to make running more fun, or finding a scenic park to run at instead of a treadmill. Maybe you try to run at every public park in your city. Then your county. Hell, maybe even your state!

There you have it — a simple model, rooted in the science of behavioral learning, to help boost your motivation for all your fitness needs.

So next time you find yourself grasping for motivation, ask yourself: How can I RISE to this challenge? Answer the four questions of the RISE model, and feel the motivating wind of science at your back.

Need motivation? Download Confidently on your mobile phone — and check out any of the many challenges and sequences available to help boost your motivation, and live confidently.
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