A sense of reward allows us to perceive whether or not we have succeeded.
Great. So how do you feel rewarded and achieve success? Seems like the old chicken and egg conundrum.
- Set a long term goal that is interesting to you and is difficult to achieve, but not too difficult.
- Allow yourself to feel reward from making small steps towards the big goal. Once you get a taste of success it tends to snowball and motivates you continue succeeding.
- Make the primary goal and the steps along the way something you can measure. "I want to feel better", is legitimate, but is too subjective to quantify and compare progress.
- Make sure you celebrate your success in a healthy way. A common error is using junk food or overeating as a treat or reward for achieving our fitness or health goals. Doing this continues hold healthy choices as not rewarding, and unhealthy choices as the real reason you are exercising. It doesn't take long to start making shortcuts to the unhealthy reward and sabotage progress.
- Expect to have set backs and work on perceiving setbacks as part of the process. Look at setbacks as incentive re-establish your reward connection with your healthy goals. It can take more than 20 weeks to start feeling like your new habits are natural instead of forced.
- Learn how to make new reward associations with the new habits, and disassociate reward with the old habits
- Bring in the calvary. It's true the main source of motivation has to be self inspired, but it helps to have the support of others. Let your friends and family know what you are doing, and tell them about your successes and when you trip up. They'll be there to celebrate with you and help you through the sticking points. No back up available? You can definitely succeed on your own. Become your own best advocate and keep setting the bar higher until you reach your goal, then maintain your success.
Damn! Now what?
We'll each have something fitness or health related that motivates us, but might have some trouble making the transition from contemplating doing something that will reward us, to actually doing it.
To overcome this create a moderate goal that isn't unrealistic; losing 20 pounds in a week, entering and IronMan next month, or too easy, "I vow to get off the couch today"!
Here's an example:
Goal: Lose 20 pounds and reduce blood pressure.
Set realistic time frame: the most successful long term weight loss results occur when weight loss is between 1 and 4 pounds per month. Losing 20 pounds over 20 to 40 weeks is realistic.
Losing 1 to 2 pounds every month or so will keep you motivated because this success is very achievable.
It's true that safe weight loss can easily be 4 lbs per month, but it's also true that maintaining that rate of loss has a much higher chance of failure, and after not achieving the short term goal 3 or 4 times often results in feelings of defeat, and many give up.
If reducing blood pressure through weight loss is your goal, talk to your doctor about it. You can work with your doctor to set up future check ups to monitor blood pressure and weight changes, and your doctor can help ensure you're doing it safely. Adding the doc also adds a person that you'll feel accountable to, which can help maintain motivation.
The goals that are the most motivating are individualized and originate within you. Is there something about your health or fitness that you find yourself wanting for? Whatever that is, that's a good place to start. Goals like losing weight to look better at the beach can be used as short term motivation to get you started, but unless you attach a long term feeling of continued reward to that you'll most likely pack on the pounds again in the winter.
Getting fit fast doesn't work, even for pro athletes. Recent research shows that 51% of hamstring injuries experienced by NFL players occur during a 7 week preseason training period. For triathletes, 68% of preseason injuries are from training too much.
This is where realistic goal setting becomes very important. Hammering hard without preparation will leave you feeling sore and burnt out, and no, these are not signs you're doing it right. Too hard too soon does provide short term results, but over the long term injury is the most likely outcome.
Taking it easy to start an and making steady gains over six months will make you more fit than starting off with a boot-camp style of training that pushes you too hard too soon.
"But summer is only a couple months away, I don't have time."
Probably the most common concern I hear regarding amping up exercise in anticipation of summer.
The challenge is we'll often put ourselves in this position annually, and kick ourselves each spring for not keeping it up over the winter.
Better to think of making a long term sustainable fitness level that is built over time rather than trying to squeeze it all into a few weeks or months. Start now and build gradually and you'll still be more fit for July and August. Continue with those gains by giving yourself ongoing challenges to improve and by next summer you'll be far more fit and feeling much better.
Think of neuroplasticity as a fancy scientific term for, "it's all in your head". Our brain holds our sense of reward, risk, and harm, and yes, we use our brains to generate our own motivation or allow ourselves to feel a lack of motivation. Research has shown that we can change our habits from good to bad or bad to good and that whichever we do, that's what we get good at doing and that's where we tend to stay... if we do nothing about it.
I used to crave cigarettes. Now the thought of a cigarette disgusts me, and this feeling is elevated when I see a cigarette, or worse, smell one. So what happened? I used to be addicted. The scent of cigarette smoke used to make me want to light up.
Instead of my brain making automated reward associations with smoking, my brain now associates smoking with risk and harm.
The same thing can happen with exercise and nutrition habits, but we have to give it time, and need to practice being self aware; that is, being able to comprehend and interpret how we feel and how we are responding to those thoughts. Some refer to this process as an expression of "emotional intelligence"
When I was quitting smoking I would often think, "Just one. One will be OK, I've done really well so far one won't hurt.. this will be the last one."
That's the automated behaviour developed over time to support smoking. What did I do?
I recognized that I should expect to have these thoughts, and these thoughts are driven by established habit, but that these thoughts are not really justification to light up. I had to tell myself there is no reward with smoking and that ultimately I will feel better if I don't give in.
Ultimately this is how we maintain our motivation to change; we have to change not just our actions, but our thoughts and feelings that are attached to those actions.
If we continue to see exercise as arduous and an ends to a means but not necessarily enjoyable or rewarding, it won't be long before we are replacing exercise with other actions that we feel are more rewarding.
How about good old "will power"? Think of will power as a sort of temporary booster switch you can flick on to a get short term burst of motivation. It works, but it runs out of power quickly. If we try to rely on will power alone we'll literally burn out mentally. Ongoing motivation comes from an internal drive and natural reward association with our goals. We have to practice our new habits and teach our brains to automate reward associations with the new habits. Imagine not having to work at feeling motivated to exercise or eat healthy.. That's what happens when living healthy becomes a habit.
The best thing? Everyone can succeed.