Off Script: Motivation, Apathy, and Disability

Mar 22, 2012
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I recently completed a literature search on the topic of motivation and exercise. The relationship between motivation, motivation limits, and apathy are important to consider and discuss with clients with and without disabilities as a fitness program is being developed or is evolving.


Motivation is defined as [i] the forces acting on or within a person to initiate a behavior.  The literature defines clear concepts which contribute to motivation. The first focuses on goal setting. My goal when I go to the fitness center is to improve my walking.


The second focuses on the ideas of preparation and follow through.   When I consider the concept of follow through for my own workout routine and walking program, it includes eating well, avoiding chocolate cake and other sweets which I enjoy, drinking enough water, and performing the established home exercise routines.

The final concepts outlined in literature include the idea of discipline and commitment.  To me, discipline means walking into the fitness center, fulfilling the expectations of the professional or professionals I work with, and completing the routines and assigned tasks.

Most of the time, I am motivated.  There are also occasions where I have no interest and feel apathetic about exercise and my defined goal.  There are days when I just hate walking in the door of the fitness center.  My body aches, my legs are stiff, or I just hurt and don’t want to be there.

Yet when I walk through that door; I have a self-expectation that I should set the apathy and lack of motivation aside and move ahead.   I also have an unwritten contract with the professional who works with me.  They have committed their time and energy toward supporting my goal, so I have to follow through on my end of the deal.

I have this idea that when I walk in the door of the fitness center; my mood, demeanor, and approach should be all business no matter what I may be feeling.  There is a script.  If I follow the script, I give a self-report talking about the impact of the last session.  I identify what specific muscle groups are fatigued.   I report how tired I am, and how long it took to recover from the impact of the last session or if I am still feeling the effect.

The fitness professionals have a script of their own.  Some type of acknowledgment will happen such as a verbal okay or nod that will affirm my report and then the work will begin.  Instructions will be delivered about what I’m expected to do.  Through the first one or two sets of exercises, the physical and/or physiological response might be the expected one.  Then, usually there will be the unexpected reaction like muscle tremor or a loss of balance.  Activity may have to halt because of pain.


The well-intentioned fitness professional will say “I know this is frustrating.”   In one of my more feisty moments, I will answer and raise the question, “Have you ever lost control of your body?”  The professional is a witness to the reaction.  They do not feel it.


For me, this loss of control is frequent and common.  There are many sessions where I watch my legs go from a fully bent position, where my feet are flat on the floor, to spastic where my legs go into involuntary muscular contractions.  I watch as one or both of my legs will uncontrollably rise into a state of rigidity.  It does not matter if I am seated or lying down. I am not able to bring my legs back to the floor.  This phenomenon can last for several minutes.


I will confirm it is frustrating when a person does not have control their body.  I get angry.  There is no script or prewritten instructions about how to manage or react when your legs uncontrollably rise.   So, where does the concept of apathy and overcoming it fit in?  Literature identifies characteristics like a fear failure, procrastination or laziness as some of the explanations for apathy.


My reply is there is a natural fear of failure for any person who chooses an unconventional approach to address a challenge regardless of whether they have a disability.  People with or without disabilities can procrastinate or at times be lazy.  There are days when I just do not want to do my exercises.  For a person with a disability, apathy may be created from factors like: a lack of control, frustration about a lack of control particularly around an inability to control their own body.  Feelings of apathy may come from experiencing pain and just being physically and emotionally drained from it.  Apathy may result from simply not having a clear idea about what to do next or how to advance a desired goal.


Research confirms that each client has “motivational limits” that a fitness professional needs to take into account in their work with a client.  Some themes and guidelines to increase client motivation to participate in exercise and fitness from prevailing research include:


  1. People are more likely to engage in active exercise if they have someone else to be active with.
  2. An exercise program should include gradual activity progression that is, a gradual increase in exercise with increases in frequency, intensity, and time, with achievable short-term goals.
  3. Fitness professionals need to educate their clients about the health benefits of both short- and long-term goals.  Knowledge and information may empower the person and improve their “mental outlook” and self-efficacy toward exercise and fitness. :[ii]


Additional strategies to overcome characteristics of apathy include: reevaluating the developed plan, setting new goals, and getting rid of bad habits.  I have applied these principles in my own walking program.  In terms of reevaluating the  developed plan for the walking program, I have learned that the more direct I am with the professional working with me, and the quicker unnecessary “scripts” are eliminated, the more time and attention can be directed toward plan modification.

When I say, “I’m questioning everything we are doing.”  The professional can counter and say “I’m seeing changes.” and report what the changes they are observing are.  They can also give me an idea of what their vision is to move the program ahead.

When my limbs go spastic, I have developed a strategy of communicating with the professional to say that we need to go to “Plan B”.  If the initial focus on upper body work produces an unexpected result, emphasis can switch to lower body work.    There are also instances where I just need to sit, have the professional observe, and have quiet to collect myself.  I will not engage in a discussion until after the unexpected reaction such as tremor or phenomena of pain passes.

Part of the reevaluation, is also trying to discover cause-and-effect. That is, why did I experience tremor or pain?  There is not always an answer for cause-and-effect.  The process of trying to figure it out hones my communication with the professional.  One recent strategy that we have explored is using an anatomy chart so that I can just point to where I feel reaction versus trying to verbalize it.

When a workout plan does not go as intended or expected, new goals always emerge.  New exercises may be assigned or I am instructed to implement new strategies to eliminate a bad habit such as staying away from chocolate or reducing caffeine intake.

In my attempt to walk without devices, the truth is that I do not want to fail.  The goal I am trying to master is continual improvement.  Apathy and frustration are a part of this process of improvement.  The emergence of apathy and frustration need to be better understood by both the client and the professionals working with them.  Scripted responses like “I know it’s frustrating,” do not necessarily placate circumstances or foster progression.

True progression happens when questions are raised by both the client and professional.  Recognition that there is no rule book and offering a “Plan B”, quiet, and space for the client to deal with the unexpected reactions is also important to move ahead.  The fitness professionals who work with me support achievement of my goals by recognizing when I have fit my “motivational limit”.  They provide the information, flexibility, and space I need to regroup.

Finally, evaluation of cause-and-effect may not lead to an answer, but instead may foster new ways of thinking and create new tools (e.g.  Using an anatomy chart to show origins of pain or physiological reaction) to advance goal achievement or define new goals.

Understanding motivation, motivational limits, and apathy for a client has a critical place in fitness program development.  Fitness professionals can support clients in the achievement of their goals by offering a range of motivational tools to overcome apathy (e.g. a written fitness plan, written benchmarks for short and long term goals, etc.).   Motivating clients to engage in fitness is a complex process.  Supporting clients to recognize and combat motivational limits through information-sharing, communication, and other strategies is critical to improving a client’s overall health.

[i] Phillips EM, Schneider JC, Mercer GR. Motivating elders to initiate exercise. The American Academy of Physical Medicine andRehabilitation, 2004;85 (Suppl 3):S52-7.

[ii] Phillips EM, Schneider JC, Mercer GR. Motivating elders to initiate exercise. The American Academy of Physical Medicine andRehabilitation, 2004;85 (Suppl 3):S52-7.

Author: Kerry

  • Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Good advice on setting goals and self motivation.

    Check out my site for an effective yet systematic approach to setting and tracking goals. 😉