What’s More Important for Fitness: Motivation or Discipline?

Read to learn about motivation vs discipline in your fitness journey.

What is the difference between discipline and motivation — especially when it comes to fitness? 

Discipline is officially defined as “training that molds.” It’s not just doing something, or even having the will to do something — it is building yourself up to make practices and good habits a part of your normal routine. When it comes to exercising, discipline is what makes something out of the ordinary become second nature.

Motivation, on the other hand, points to the reason behind action. Why do you wake up early before work to go for a run? Why do you keep going back to the pullup bar when it’s been weeks and you still can’t quite reach your chin to the bar? You’re chasing a goal — that’s motivation. 

So, in short: Discipline is showing up to do something repeatedly, and motivation is the reason why.

In achieving fitness goals (or any goal, for that matter), which is more important: discipline or motivation? This answer will vary for each person. Think about your previous health or exercise benchmarks. When you didn’t achieve something, what stopped you? When you did achieve something, what kept you going?

Many times, people think of motivation and discipline as a linear story: I want X (motivation); therefore, it’s time for Y (discipline). I want to be able to run a marathon (motivation); therefore, it’s time to run after work (discipline). 

It’s easier to examine the relationship between motivation and discipline when it’s a one-time thing, or when motivation exclusively shapes discipline. Without motivation, it’s hard to see what makes a person follow through. After all, it’s difficult to stick to a behavior when there is no “why” behind the choices you make. 

Yet, without discipline, what makes a person actually act on something? I’ll be the first to admit that there needs to be willpower involved when it comes to fitness discipline. With my work schedule, exercise needs to happen early in the morning or right when I get home when I just want to relax. In colder temperatures, a workout requires that I step out in 30 degree weather. For me, at 6:00 in the morning, motivation doesn’t feel like enough. What separates motivation from discipline is driving oneself to, as Nike says, “just do it”.

Improving my ability to do the things I don’t want to in the moment shapes the person I want to become: one who is able to strive for something hard and achieve it. 

Fitness, in particular, doesn’t come easy. I stress the importance of small gains and taking things day by day because it’s easy to get overwhelmed looking at the big picture. Most things with a high reward aren’t simply handed to us. Motivation works to provide the extra drive when it’s difficult; discipline is what, in the moment, gets our butt out the door. 

This applies to all decisions we make — whether physical, spiritual, mental, or any other aspect of our lives. When I was in college, I was a part of a student organization that raised money for pediatric rehabilitation programs through a 24-hour dance marathon. As someone who loves dancing and helping people, I didn’t have to fight for motivation to sign up for something like this. The project became a little less motivating, however, after 15 hours of standing. Consistently, the leaders reminded us, “If you want to quit, remember why you stand.” They were reminding us of our motivation. 

For something like a dance marathon, lacking consistent motivation means you quit after the slightest discomfort. Lacking discipline, however, means you don’t stand up in the first place. I needed a persistent circle of discipline and motivation to get me through. 

Ultimately, you can’t have motivation without discipline, and it’s hard to sustain discipline without motivation. In many ways, one feeds the other on a continual basis.

I invite you to consider your fitness goals. What motivates you to achieve those goals, and what will help you get there when it’s hard? It’s important to keep both motivation and discipline in mind and to remember that both play an integral part in the fitness journey. For some, motivation will play a bigger role; for others, it will be saying “yes” in the daily actions of each day. 

Whichever you lean on more, allow the development of your fitness habits to be “training that molds.”

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