What Motivates Michael Phelps May Be the Same Thing That Motivates You

Notes from my recent attendance at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

I spent most of last week at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, here in Denver, close to where I live. It was a golden opportunity to have easy access to the premier sports and exercise medicine organization in America. This is the body that fixes guidelines for medical stress testing and sets the standard for screening before beginning an exercise program. They are also the ones who come out with the annual rating of “America’s 50 fittest cities” that you may have seen. Presentations centered on the hard science and research that is behind the information and recommendations that you hear about.

There were plenty of topics covered, including consequences of sedentary behavior, pros and cons of wearable technology, exercise and the current opioid epidemic, and research regarding meal timing and weight loss. All these are topics for future blogs!

Kristen Carter at ACSM Meeting Denver, May 2017

But for now I would like to highlight two events that I attended.

One was a featured lecture by Michelle Segar, Ph.D., MPH, MS, researcher, health coach, and authority on what motivates people to exercise.

The other was a session with Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic metals than anyone in history. If you want to see someone who is motivated, he’s the guy!

Believe it or not, there are some commonalities between Michael Phelps and the rest of us who manage to make fitness a sustained habit. Read on to find out what those things are. I would love to find out if you agree!


So, in her talk, Michelle explored four common beliefs about what motivates people to exercise:

  1. Often you hear that you need is to start with why before taking action. Once you tie your goals to core values, what you do going forward will be sustainable because it is in line with those values. Do you agree or disagree?
  2. People often make decisions based on logic and thinking things through. Do you agree or disagree?
  3. Most people exercise (or start exercising) to lose weight. Do you agree or disagree?
  4. When it comes to exercise, most people just want to be told what to do. Do you agree or disagree?

As you might suspect, according to Michelle, none of these traits lead to sustained motivation to exercise.

Here’s what she says really matters:

  • It’s not what your long-term values and goals are, it is how exercise makes you feel NOW, today, that matters.
  • That is because people make decisions based on emotion 80% (if not more) of the time. It is how they are feeling that tips the scale.
  • Yes, people often want to lose weight and think that exercise is going to help them do that. But it is still a daily NOW choice that needs to be made. Choosing to exercise is based on knowing and experiencing that exercise makes you feel good, is relaxing, puts you in a better mood, can be fun, and can be socially rewarding.
  • You may think that people just want a program to follow, steps to take and so on, but that is not the case when exercise is a habit. People are more likely to stick with something when there is a choice. Making a choice leads to feelings of autonomy. This feeds right in to what she called the “Holy Grail” of sustainable fitness. It is having the belief that what you do will result in the change that you want, and that you are capable of creating that change for yourself. (For those of you who want to geek out with this, it’s called the Theory of Self Determination or Self-Efficacy.)

Michael Phelps

So now we turn to Michael Phelps. Michael talked a lot about what went into his training, how thorough it was, and how grueling. He is clearly an individual who had almost supernatural focus on all levels. This was exemplified when he was asked if there was anyone that he was trying to beat. His answer? “Just myself.”

There was something else. Even though his goal was to work harder than his competition, he considered it “fun” to be the best, to accomplish his goals, to know that he had done his very best. But, when it was all said and done, another deeply internalized trait that Michael revealed was the following: He said that, even when going through his toughest times, he had an unshakable belief that he was capable of doing what he put his mind to. Self-determination to the max.

So there you have it. The good feelings, the fun, and The Holy Grail (self determination), put in a completely different context, but undeniable.

So…what do you think? Is knowing that you are capable, and can make the change you are seeking, the biggest factor in being able to keep going (with fitness in this case)?

Agree or disagree?

Drop me an email with any of your comments. I would love to know!

If you want to get more research and insights from Michelle Segar, check out her book, “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness”.

All the best,

© 2017-2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.

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