Why do you work out?

A simple question with a seemingly simple list of potential answers: losing weight, enhancing health, catching up with friends, etc. Take a look at the following list of possible motivators—compiled by researchers from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada—and write down which ones inspire you to perspire:

  1. Develop mental toughness
  2. Become more assertive
  3. Build self-esteem
  4. Reduce negative habits
  5. Create opportunities for personal achievement
  6. Develop greater focus and concentration
  7. Learn new skills for life
  8. Prevent future health problems
  9. Shape my body and increase physical attractiveness
  10. Improve endurance
  11. Be physically fit
  12. Be with friends or make new friends
  13. Have fun
  14. Enjoy the challenge and excitement of competition
  15. Live more adventurously
  16. Reduce stress and release tension
  17. Deal with moods and anxiety
  18. Increase feelings of relaxation

Different methods of motivation

It turns out that your age may play a surprisingly significant role in determining what really motivates you to hit the gym.

The older you are, the more likely you are to have written down numbers eight to eleven (the factors aimed at becoming "toned and fit") or numbers 16 to 18 (the factors associated with "stress reduction"), according to the survey results of nearly 1,900 Montreal-based YMCA members, conducted by James Gavin, professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences at Concordia. Gavin's team split respondents up into five age-groups: teens, 20s, 30s, 40s and 50+, then measured how each cohort convinced themselves to stay physically active.

In addition to "toned and fit" and "stress reduction," two additional categories of exercise inspiration were identified: "mental toughness" and "fun and friends."

Across the board, being "toned and fit" was the top reason for exercise, but this particular type of motivation was more commonly cited by older adults. "Health may be taken for granted at a younger age, whereas aging tends to bring home the fragility of our lives," writes Gavin in an article in the "International Journal of Wellbeing."

Younger individuals, on the other hand, were more likely to say that elements corresponding to "fun and friends" and "mental toughness" inspired their workout efforts.

Making moves

We are, by and large, a sedentary society.

Only one-in-five American adults meet the minimum recommendations for physical activity, and the motivation to make a daily trek to the gym drops off as a person gets older. Scientists hope to reverse this trend by uncovering what really convinces people to stay active.

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As we get older, exercise appears to shift from being perceived as a source of socialization and a fun way to challenge our physical and mental limits towards being viewed as an onerous health obligation that's nonetheless necessary to ward off weight gain and lessen the impact of aging.

Exercise becomes increasingly important as we age—potentially helping to ward off everything from heart disease to depression. But, for older adults who view physical activity as just another checkbox on an already too full to-do list, breaking a sweat may seem more like a chore than a chance to improve health and wellbeing. Couple that with arthritis and other health conditions that can make exercise painful, it's no wonder that families often express frustration at an aging relative who won't workout.

Perhaps we need to search for ways to change the perception of exercise, especially among the older populations. As Gavin puts it: "What needs to happen for individuals to maintain their view of the world of sports and exercise as a place where they can be nourished in mind, body and spirit?"

Maybe all we need to do is ask 99-year-old great-grandmother, Ida Keeling, what keeps her sprinting to new World Records: