Survey Finds the Top Motivator for Exercise in 2023—and It’s Not Weight Loss

Heck yes.

Working out has long been used singularly for physical, superficial results. But a new (and arguably healthier) fitness rationale is starting to take over the minds of exercisers, bringing unprecedented change to the industry.

Consumer priorities and goals in the fitness and wellness space have experienced a recent shift, no doubt brought on in large part by the pandemic, growing body-neutrality and -positivity movements, and new waves of mental health and preventive health awareness. 

The 2023 Wellness Index from Mindbody found that consumers are now less focused on exercising for physical appearances than ever. In 2019, the survey showed weight loss and weight control as the top motivators for working out—in 2023, Americans' primary reason for working out is to live a long and healthy life, with nearly 40 percent of respondents reporting that they use fitness to support their mental well-being, according to the Index's Fitness-Focused Findings.


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“I think we all realized that wellness is less about aesthetics and more about mental health and longevity—showing up as our best selves so we can show up for others long-term,” says Lauren McAlister, certified nutritional therapy practitioner and a member of Mindbody and the ClassPass Wellness Council. “COVID underscored the importance of slowing down and prioritizing our health both mentally and physically.”

Mindbody surveyed 17,000 Americans about their motivations for movement, including their favorite workouts, recovery techniques, and more. In 2021, per that year’s survey, the leading fitness objective was losing weight—perhaps since many felt pressure to return to their “pre-quarantine figures,” after months of intense stress, changed activity routines, and a more sedentary lifestyle. The same survey conducted in 2022 found that reducing stress was the principal reason behind physical activity. 

This year, consumers say they strive for physical activity to help support their mental well-being and overall, long-term health. America’s motivation for fitness continues to evolve, and with it, our wellness habits. In fact, one-third of consumers now say they exercise to maintain longer and healthier lives—a significant bump from last year.

“A lot of us have been over-stressed and under-recovered (dehydrated, not sleeping well, not nourishing our bodies) for years,” McAlister says. “Thankfully, with longevity as the goal, we're recalibrating. Consumers are incorporating functional fitness to strengthen their daily lives, prioritizing recovery practices, and incorporating wellness activities to promote better physical and mental health. I'm excited to see the tides turning; Americans are prioritizing wellness, and fitness specifically, to live longer, more fulfilling lives—not for something as fleeting as ‘losing the last five pounds’ or achieving six-pack abs.” 

Exercise Is Becoming a Go-To Strategy to Improve Mental Health

How we move our bodies consciously affects almost all areas of our life. Nearly 65 percent of the participants in the same study said wellness is more important than other leisure expenses. Results from Grow Therapy’s 2023 State of Mental Health Report also showed exercise to be the most important activity, besides therapy, for improving mental health and overall well-being—findings strongly supported by scientific research

Therapists are most likely to recommend exercise (23 percent of the time) and time with loved ones to improve mental health. This is followed by spending time in nature, meditation or spending quality time alone. Such intrinsic motivation to move is much more proactive, functional, sustainable, and holistic than being pressured to move by external expectations and perceptions.

Working Out for More Than Physical Benefits 

Moving your body and engaging in physical activity really does go beyond the workouts themselves. Working out comes with numerous preventive health and physical benefits, including supporting your immune system, emotional resilience and stress response, heart health, cognitive health, metabolism, bone density, and sleep cycles, and more. People who exercise regularly tend to feel less stressed and more joyful in their daily lives and within their work and social communities.

“I play in creating a movement with light resistance and weights, and the bar for longevity, joy, strength, and stamina,” says Evan Lee Breed, former gymnast and dancer, pilates instructor, and yoga teacher who worked for a decade as the Tracy Anderson Method master trainer. “You should be able to have fun and have joy when you're moving and not feel like your body's breaking down. I want to provide a workout for prioritizing goals and feeling good in your mind, body, and spirit over a number on the scale."

Low-Impact Training and Mindful Movement Is on the Rise

Getting exercise daily doesn’t always have to mean spending two hours at the gym and doing high-intensity training, calorie counting, or spending tons of money. Low-impact exercise, which is easier on the joints, like those Breed leads, is trending up in 2023. About one-third of consumers report preferring low-intensity and low-impact training. While boxing (definitely higher-intensity and higher-impact exercise) is still the most popular in-person workout class, per Mindbody’s report, those who do online workouts are more likely to choose lower-impact movement such as Pilates and yoga. The more restorative, stress-reducing, anti-inflammatory benefits and the opportunity they provide to work on strength and endurance without risking injury make it a more appealing way of moving.

“Being aware of breath, especially when you're moving, can help engage more muscles,” Breed adds. “Inhale on the preparation and exhale when you move so that all the muscles are recruited and working together.” A mindful, attention-focused approach to fitness helps bring out its best mental and emotional benefits. “It's about being aware of how you're moving your body in space: What muscles engage to support your low back? How can you release tension in your neck? It’s just [about] being mindful of how to move your body effectively.” 

Recovery continues to be a priority for consumers, too, with nearly half of the study pool saying that stretching and restorative yoga are essential to their practice.

Breed explains that movement is not just about fitness but getting to know how our body works to improve overall health, sleeping, mind-body connection and more. “It's really about being mindful of how to move your body—once you can connect your mind, body and breath, you feel amazing.” 

Workout Less

With such availability of different class longevity and styles, primarily via streaming, shorter workouts are on the rise. As consumers return to busy work and social lives, long classes and endless gym routines are no longer the priority.

"Committing to less so you can show up more is so important when it comes to wellness and fitness,” says Megan Roup, former professional dancer and the founder and CEO of The Sculpt Society fitness platform. “Committing to shorter workouts, but doing them more consistently, feels less overwhelming and can help with mindfulness. Even just ten minutes of movement daily can significantly impact your physical and mental well-being.”

Ultimately, physical movement is part of our human journey, and, through it, our connection with the body and mind. It helps us better understand ourselves and align our bodies for healthier and potentially longer living. The more studios and gyms incorporate deeper motivations into their messaging; the more Consumers seem to be realizing new, more holistic and more intrinsic motivations (meaning for them, not for others!) for choosing to move, focusing on boosting physical and mental well-being.

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