We know that hitting the gym or the pavement for an outdoor run makes us feel on top of the world. The endorphins alone are typically enough to keep us coming back for more. But sometimes motivation comes in a less uplifting package. Negative motivation is nothing new. If you’ve ever hit the treadmill because you “ate too much this weekend” or you just “hate your body right now,” you’ve fallen victim to this common but damaging type of inspiration. And, unfortunately, our society may have something to do with it.

woman running outside

“We’re in a constant state of comparison with others,” explains Aaptiv Trainer Candice Cunningham. “Our society encourages it through social media, where we’re constantly bombarded with the successes of others. It makes us feel inferior, and we start thinking about what we don’t have versus what we do have.”

Social media certainly exacerbates these feelings, but this kind of unhealthy motivation has been around for a while. “For a lot of the ’90s and early 2000s, the focus was on exercise for weight loss,” adds Aaptiv Trainer Meg Takacs. “The problem with this is that people started to associate exercise with only weight loss. And that becomes captivating and somewhat addictive.”

As a result of these feelings, for some, workouts are less about feeling good and more about looking good. And, while it’s certainly okay to want to lose a healthy amount of weight or gain muscle, there’s a fine line between working out to reach a goal and working out as punishment. “It’s easy to use workouts as punishment for something like overeating because it makes us feel a sense of control over a situation,” says Aaptiv Trainer Jennifer Giamo. “We’re not letting ourselves off the hook for poor choices if we’re exercising to make up for them.”

The Impact

It’s easy to understand why negativity can sometimes be motivating. Hitting the gym after a weekend full of cocktails and takeout can feel great physically. But the mental impacts of these negative motivations can be dangerous.

“Over time, we really start to believe the negative things we’re using to push us,” says Cunningham. “So we continue to use those habits, and it ends up leaving us feeling like we’re worthless.”

These feelings can then translate into physical effects. “Negative motivation forces us to see negative over positive overall,” explains Aaptiv Trainer Kelly Chase. “So, we’re constantly picking out what we don’t like about ourselves, and our brain becomes accustomed to those negative thoughts and starts to actually believe them.”

This comes through, Chase explains, in thoughts like “I like my strong legs, but they could be thinner.” From there, our relationship with fitness actually changes. “It makes for a dependent relationship,” says Takacs. “You become dependent on exercise for weight loss, and you associate weight loss with happiness and success. It’s a vicious cycle.”

That cycle can not only lead to things like overuse injuries and physical and emotional stress but can also lead us to forget the real health benefits of fitness, explains Giamo. “We see exercise as a means to a physical end such as a six-pack or ripped arms instead of a lifelong journey that makes us feel good on the inside,” she says. “We forget about the heart-healthy benefits of cardiovascular exercise, the bone-building benefits of strength training, and the endorphin-producing results of a good workout.”

Shift the Thinking

When you’re conditioned to think negatively about fitness and yourself, it’s not always easy to change your mindset. But it’s worth it to try — for your body and your life. “If you start approaching fitness with a positive mind, you’re going to start to actually enjoy working out,” says Aaptiv Trainer Benjamin Green. “Starting your workouts from a positive place even 80 percent of the time will lead to long-term success, and you’ll become happier in your personal life too.”

Giamo agrees. “You begin to appreciate what your body can do for you and you start to celebrate the fact that you have the opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “Gratitude is a powerful motivator — it will never fail you. We should all take a moment to be thankful for our bodies and the work they do for us every day.”

Find Your Way

To change your approach to fitness, Takacs says you need to start viewing fitness overall from a more holistic perspective, one that includes physical and mental benefits. “Exercise should be used to promote healthy movement and thinking,” she says.

To do this, you need to define the reason “why” you work out — and it should be something mental, not physical. For example, reasons like “I want to be more confident” or “I want more energy to do better work” will help push you in a positive direction. “Those types of feelings last way longer and lead to more success in other areas of life than any kind of physical goal,” Takacs says.

Focus on the Little Things

What you choose to focus on plays a big role in how you see your body and exercise, says Cunningham. “So what if you missed a workout? So what if you can’t run as fast as your friend right now? So what if you ate one cookie?” she says. Instead, focus on things like doing quality work at your job, getting more sleep, or even something as little as drinking more water. She explains that focusing on wellness goals — not just physical goals like weight loss — can actually start to shift your feelings toward health overall in a more positive way.

In the same way, it’s important to celebrate the small fitness wins too. “Celebrate when you finally jog for a full two minutes instead of being upset you can’t run a mile,” says Cunningham. “Celebrate when you consistently show up for the gym for more than two days one week.” She recommends coming up with a small weekly fitness goal that you can almost certainly achieve. “Do it each week to keep reminding yourself of your worth and to keep moving toward larger goals,” she adds.

Avoid Outside Negativity

If you’re regularly feeling down about yourself, look around. Do your friends engage in negative self-talk? If so, it might be time to talk to them about it or cut ties. “Some people are surrounded by negativity so it’s embedded in them,” says Green, “If you hang out at the barbershop long enough, you’re probably going to get a haircut. It’s the same with being around negative people. Sometimes you need to change your surroundings to be more positive.”

Figure Out Your Feelings

One of the major steps in switching your thinking from negative to positive is to identify the reasons why you feel lousy about your body. “Try to figure out why you put this pressure on yourself,” says Giamo. “What makes you unhappy about your body? Can you turn that statement into a positive one?”

She suggests reminding yourself of all your achievements thus far to build up your self-esteem. Write down your goals using positive and encouraging statements. Think: “I want to build arm strength like Serena Williams” instead of “I want to lose this gross arm fat.”

Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care and the idea of supporting yourself and your needs isn’t a new concept, but it’s all the rage right now, and for good reason. Staying aware of and addressing your personal mental and emotional needs can play a major role in your relationship with your body and with exercise. So be sure to put yourself first on your fitness journey.

To do this, Giamo recommends simply taking “me time.” “Devote 20-60 minutes to yourself without distractions,” she says, adding that it can be seriously motivating to zone in on your own wants and needs. Another easy way to employ some self-care, and therefore some self-love, is to simply remind yourself of your strengths. Both Chase and Green recommend coming up with affirmations that you can focus on throughout your days. “Come up with a positive phrase that reminds you that you’re beautiful and strong and then write it down and put it on your mirror,” says Green.

This alone can start shifting your mentality from negative to positive. “The more positive words you see and hear, the more positive actions you take,” says Chase. “Your complete outlook on your life and health journey will improve. Your body will be happier and you might even start seeing better results because you’re feeding your mind with words it needs to hear.”

It’s easy to feel bad after a wild weekend or a week off from the gym. But that’s never a reason to push yourself through workouts you don’t feel good about. Negative motivations will always be there, but it’s important to focus on the positive to change your relationship with not only fitness but yourself.

“Changing who you are lasts way longer than changing a number on the scale,” says Takacs. “Changing who you are makes you want to work out for the right reasons.”