The Psychology behind Why You Quit the Gym

It's not you, it's science

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The first week of January – and generally the first few days after you’ve set a new goal – is very easy. You have started to exercise in order to lose a few inches off your waistline; you are sticking to your schedule and you feel good about it. Then you get on the scale, see a change of just a pound or two, and the gym becomes history.

The brain is wired to work against your plan to drop some weight. It’s not your fault. It’s science’s, according to studies. Our gray matter likes to remember pleasing experiences which is why we find it hard to even break a bad habit. The problem is that it takes a while for a good one to be created and for the ultimate goal to be achieved. In the meantime, people get frustrated because they see no results and quit.

“We need instant rewards for a behavior to be encouraged,” Emmett Williams, the president of MYZONE and an owner of several gyms in Australia. Forming a new habit is like training a dog, he adds. You give them rewards when they do well so they continue to behave. Another metaphor is toothpaste. “The fresh feeling [in your mouth] is the instant reward,” Williams says. The brain associates it brushing your teeth and it wants to do it again, especially after eating certain foods. “That’s what we need to do with exercising,” Williams says. “We need to put that tickling feeling in working out.” You have to lie to your brain and make it think that losing weight is an instant reward so it doesn’t give up on you.

Social amplification

One way of doing that is by creating a points system. “You earn points as you rise up in the ranking,” Williams adds. This way you actually see results. Satisfaction equals motivation. “You can amplify that by other people watching.” This is where social media comes in and can actually do some good – you get a pat on the back by your audience. “Let’s be honest; most of us do more when others are watching,” he says, especially if you know the people watching. If you run alone in the woods, you’re likely going slowly and even dragging your feet. But if you run in the city, you probably do it fast to show off a little bit.

Lottery mechanics

Another way of tricking your brain into wanting to stick to working out is by giving it a chance to win big. Don’t say that you’re going to work out 10 times this month. Instead, think of several scenarios (awards) – from insignificant ones such as watching Netflix to a big one like a trip to Paris – for what you’d do when you achieve this mini-goal. Put them in a bowl and mix them up. When you come back from your 10th session at the gym, pick one. “The chance of winning big is far more motivating than the certainty of winning small,” Williams says, citing Stanford studies. This is called lottery mechanics and is used with people who are not intrinsically motivated, he adds.


This whole process is a game and the goal is to get people engaged. “The things we should do to stay healthy are not fun but these games make them fun and rewarding.” Turning a workout into a game is a common advice fitness instructors give to people who try hard to stick to their goals of losing weight or building strength. You have to enjoy everything you do or you will stop.


Now that you’ve built a new habit, you have to make sure you don’t break it. Education is what lies behind the intrinsic motivation – you must have a clear understating of the benefits of what you’re doing. “That’s the mastery,” Williams says. You can run out of ink writing down why exercising is important. Find the reasons why it will specifically help you.

Motivation comes down to emotion, he adds. Some kind of sentiment is usually associated with why people start to work out. It could be fear of a heart attack, guilt they can’t fit in their skinny jeans, or pride that they’ve achieved a goal many struggle with. “Remind yourself of that emotion so you don’t become apathetic,” Williams says. This is a certain recipe for success, he adds.

More readings: 

15 Ways to Re-Launch Your New Year’s Resolutions

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Don’t Ever Do These 16 Things Before Working Out