How to Stay Motivated After a Heart Attack

army motivation

Was I motivated to stay healthy after my heart attack?  Of course I was – for awhile.  I changed my diet, joined a gym, and started running.  Then, the same lack of self-control and discipline that fueled my first heart attack started to creep back into my life.  I began binging on junk food, became too busy to go to the gym and became too bored with running.  I was not spiraling out of control (yet), but I had lost the motivation to “move”, to be healthy.

Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states.” – Carol Welch

What is Motivation?

In layman’s terms, it’s the desire to do something.  I want to be healthy, therefore I eat right and exercise.  It’s pretty simple on the surface, but there are many theories and models devoted to understanding motivation.  For our purposes, let’s focus on just two – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is based on the enjoyment of a task or a belief that it is the right thing to do.  For example, I really enjoy eating vegetables and running.   I also believe eating right and exercising is the right thing to do.  Based upon my enjoyment and beliefs associated with these tasks, I stay motivated to do them because they are a part of who I am.

If eating right and exercising were part of who I am, I would not have had a heart attack at 41.

Extrinsic Motivation

As the name implies, extrinsic motivation is based on external factors – primarily rewards or punishment.  Rewards are awesome, and punishment (or guilt) has fueled my personal development since childhood.

In the green vegetable/running example above, extrinsic motivators or rewards might be improved appearance and health.  The punishment for not eating right and exercising is another heart attack (or death).

Which is more Effective?

Based on my examples, you might say extrinsic motivation is superior.  However, research indicates that intrinsic motivation is more effective long-term.  So we focus on intrinsic motivation, right?  Not entirely.  As with anything in life, there needs to be a balance.

An article on HealthCentral discusses the need for a balanced approach.  Intrinsic motivators keep you going in the long run, but extrinsic motivators get you started and keep you moving in the short-term.  Check out the article for more detail.

Enough Psychobabble, How Do I Motivate Myself?

You form habits.  Early on, rewards are going to help.  Exercise and eating right improve physical appearance.  Who doesn’t want to look better?  But let’s face it, even if you had a heart attack at a “younger” age, you are still probably past your physical prime.  Looking good will only take you so far.

In order to stay motivated long-term, you need to make the mental shift.  You need to envision yourself as a healthy person.  Healthy people do healthy things.  Before you know it, you enjoy doing healthy things.  Congratulations, you are intrinsically motivated.

To put the plan into action, try the following:

  1. Set goals – Goals need to be measurable and obtainable.  I will lose 2 pounds a month.  Not I will have six pack abs.
  2. Schedule activities – I put my morning workouts on my Google calendar.  I also build exercise into activities I am already doing (riding my bike to work).
  3. Measure performance – Take before and after pictures.  They are very motivating!  There is also a lot of cool wearable technology out there to track fitness goals.
  4. Provide rewards – Recognize when you achieve goals.  If all goes as planned, you may need some new clothes.  Or, a Fitbit may be in order.
  5. Enjoy – Make sure you are doing something you enjoy.  Running sucks, try biking or swimming.

Most people can’t understand how surviving a heart attack isn’t motivation enough to be healthy.  I get that, but I also know how difficult it can be to break old habits and form new ones.  Start with a decision, take action, repeat.  If that doesn’t work, get the dude in the picture above to start yelling at you.


Nelson, Lisa. “Getting Heart Healthy: Motivation to Change Your Habits.” N.p., n.d. Web.

Photo credit: United States Marine Corps Official Page / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)


  1. Paul,
    What is a Fitbit that you mention here? Did I miss a gadget post?

    • Fitbit is a bracelet that tracks your walking, running, sleeping, and just about any other activity. The device syncs with your phone and you can track all your results on personal dashboards. You can manage on the web also. Check out the device here:

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