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Is it bad being negatively motivated to exercise?

The other day I was listening to American businessperson Carla Harris being interviewed on Adam Grant’s podcast about her successful career in the finance industry. My ears perked up when Harris described herself as “negatively motivated”:

but i am negatively motivated. you should know that about me. so when you tell me i can't do something, I'm all over it like a bad smell.

Harris suggests in the podcast that she took the underestimation of her as a black women in the white-male dominated finance industry as a challenge to overcome.

There are other, slightly different definitions of negative motivation, such as this one from Google:

Google defines negative motivation as behaviour that is motivated by anticipation or fear that an undesirable outcome will result from not performing. Fear is a powerful motivator, especially when that fear relates to your survival or, in the case of employees, their income and growth.

Negative motivation here is less about seeing adversity as a challenge and more about acting out of fear given the negative consequences of not acting. This definition aligns with how I often find myself motivated to exercise: not out of pleasure or reward but out of what I know will happen if I don’t exercise–namely stiffness, reduced flexibility, low mood, and inability to keep up with my friends.

Is it bad or wrong to be motivated by adversity, worries, or fears?

One fitness and wellness blog site suggests that positive motivation and reinforcement is more effective. The author uses an analogy of a gazelle being hunted by a cheetah to describe how “negative reinforcement works great temporarily, but falls short on long-term lifestyle changes” (p.18). Once the cheetah stops chasing the gazelle, the gazelle is no longer motivated to run at top speed.

However, positive reinforcements have been found to be effective only when they continue to be applied. According to one meta-analysis study, positive reinforcements improved exercise behaviours to a greater degree than negative reinforements, but once the positive reinforcements were removed there were mixed results in sustaining exercise behaviours.

Even if they are equally effective, I believe it is probably more difficult in the long to live among negative motivation and reinforcements all the time. A few years ago Kim Solga wrote about the underestimation of women cyclists. Even if female athletes are motivated to blow up gender assumptions and limiting stereotypes in their sport, Solga rightly points out that being on the receiving end of the negativity—the mansplaining, showing off, and the excessive complimenting—is exhausting!

Cheetah lying down. Photo by ray rui on Unsplash

I think I’d prefer not to be negatively motivated. I don’t want only hardship or fears to be what spurs me on. (And, of course, sex and race prejudice in sport needs to go away entirely.) Yet, when I’ve tried to be positive, set happy goals, and reward myself with bubble baths, they don’t always work.

Maybe it’s okay to be negatively motivated so long as I cut myself some slack occasionally, especially when I start to exhaust myself with all the worries. Some days, even the cheetahs and the gazelles hang around in the desert sunshine, watching each other but taking a break from the chase.

6 thoughts on “Is it bad being negatively motivated to exercise?

  1. I like the image of my positive motivations and my negative motivations lounging around together on the grass having a picnic.

  2. I guess ultimately I think it comes down to a pragmatic question, how well does this motivation serve you? If it works for you and gets you moving, then that’s great. The worry about negative motivation isn’t that it’s intrinsically bad, it’s that it doesn’t work. But if that worry isn’t a worry for you, what’s the issue?

    1. We negative folks can get negative about our negativity (like me worrying about my worrying), so I like your pragmatic perspective. 🔥

  3. My thoughts as I read this? Sure, positive is great. If I got to choose, that’s the way I’d turn. But in this setting, positive and negative are not mutually exclusive. In my experience (I am very, very active at age 71), both are there at least some of the time, and either one can get me out the door. I try to recognize each as a useful element, ’cause life does occasionally offer lemons.

    1. As I was reflecting on the cheetah gazelle analogy (made by someone else), I was thinking that too. The cheetah is positively motivated (to eat) but also negatively motivated (to stave off hunger). We are complex beasts! Thanks for sharing your thought! 😊

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