Why we need to rethink our workout motivation

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Writer Zoe Louise Cronk

My Reading Room


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The old saying “no pain, no gain” is one many of us reach for when gritting our teeth through those last few reps at the gym. Equally, when we don’t feel the familiar pangs of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after a workout, guilt settles in as we berate ourselves for not pushing ourselves hard enough. Why do we do this?

Shouldn’t fitness be a form of therapy, as opposed to a punishment for what we’ve eaten or how we look in the mirror? It’s a question more people are asking, but there’s plenty of room to delve deeper. Why do so many of us experience self-deprecating relationships with exercise? After all, many of us have experienced the high of endorphins; so isn’t it possible to harness them as the reason for exercising in the first place, to ensure our sweat sessions are less about penance and more about feel-good factor? And in that case, wouldn’t pleasure, not pain, be a better motivator when it comes to working out?


Pip Black is co-founder of Frame, one of London’s most fun-filled fitness studios, known for its positive attitude, boundless energy and a great variety of classes. When it comes to inspiring clients to exercise, Black’s enthusiastic response says it all: “At Frame, our purpose is to ensure that getting fit never feels like a chore. We want every trip to leave you feeling great!” Anyone who has attended a barre, dance cardio or rebounding class in one of their six locations across the British capital will agree they’ve achieved this in spades.

But why are people there in the first place? The muscle shaking and burning sensation that so many of us love to hate during a fitness class or gym session may be indicators that we’re working hard, but surely it depends on our actual reason for exercising. If you’re there purely to see physical change, then yes, these feelings will be what you seek. But how about your mental well-being? If you’re there for escapism, a bit of ‘you time’ and to rid your body and mind of stress or anxiety, then it’s time to look for more from your workout.

“We encourage people to move to change their mood,” says Black. “People should choose exercise that they love and enjoy, and that makes them happy. If you can re-programme your brain so that you see exercise as positive rather than a punishment, the more chance you have of sticking to a regular routine and seeing results.”

Taking it one step further, the folks at Frame even have a mood filter on their class timetable which enables clients to choose a class based on how they’re feeling at the time of booking, and how they want to feel afterwards. Trying it out for myself, I ticked the box for ‘stressed’ (it had been a long week!) and a colourful filter popped up suggesting that I book Box Fit or Power Yoga to lift my mood and decompress. “We’re all about putting mental health first,” explains Black. “If you’re feeling positive and energised, you’re more likely to make positive choices that make you feel even better. It’s a happy, healthy circle!”


On the other side of the world in Singapore, the team behind boutique Pilates and fitness studio SmartFit channel the same approach. “Exercise should be part of a lifestyle that includes consistent safe and effective training in a way that brings you joy,” says owner and Master Trainer Marina Goddu. “Working out is one of the best natural ways to settle your emotions and improve both your mood and way of thinking.”

These were reasons why Goddu entered the fitness industry. A former athlete turned Pilates instructor, turned qualified physiotherapist and instructor in barre, boxing, aerobics and more, she discovered her love of movement as a way to improve her confidence and outlook, as well as her physique.

Having run her own studio for 15 years, Goddu explains that delivering a positive service is not just about the client’s mindset. The instructor has to give off good vibes too, an approach which both Frame and SmartFit advocate. “It goes both ways. One of the reasons people come to SmartFit is the community. People get positive energy from our instructors and the other staff in the studio, which helps them feel better, even before their class.”

But how can you keep this brighter mindset after you’ve left the studio and the endorphins have worn off?  Black believes in choosing workouts based on energy level and mindset. “A HIIT class can leave you feeling exhausted if you’re already tired,” she explains. “It may give you a short-term boost immediately afterwards, but without the correct nutrition and rest, you will crash not long after. Strength training is less likely to give a burst of energy like HIIT does, but it’s more likely to deliver a prolonged feeling of positivity and empowerment. It’s great for those who want results but are already feeling a bit depleted.”

Similarly, Goddu says your heart doesn’t have to pound to leave feeling good. “Low-impact exercise like Pilates requires a lot of focus on internal sensations and re-educates the brain in healthy movement,” she says, making it a good option for those looking to get out of their own heads and away from the pressures of everyday. Quietening the mind through pastimes such as yoga are fantastic, if you’re able to switch off. But for some of us, shifting our attention to movement, instead of our to-do list, is what we really need. Something to look forward to when the inbox starts overfilling.

So what’s the take-home message? Consider your motivation for exercise. Are you keen to physically achieve or do you want to improve mental well-being? There’s no wrong answer, and there’s nothing wrong with body-related goals but identifying your intention and how you’re feeling on the day will help you to choose the best workout for you in that moment and that might be just what you need to get more out of every session and actually stick to a routine without it feeling forced.

As Black so perfectly puts it, “Think about a healthy and balanced lifestyle that includes not just exercise but nutrition, sleep and fun, and most importantly, find a type of movement that you love.”

My Reading Room
My Reading Room