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Why are some people able to fulfill their exercise goals, while others flounder aimlessly?
Jim gets up every morning at 6:00 am and runs five miles, rain or shine. Joe, on the other hand, plans to watch his favorite teams battle it out and will enthusiastically resolve to be more active. As the days shorten and the weather worsens however, the wheels come off his resolve. He vows to exercise when the weather improves. Or when he is less stressed. Or as soon as he buys some new running shoes.
What is the difference between Jim and Joe? Jim has motivation; Joe has good intentions.
Motivation is the gasoline of exercise. No matter how many bench presses, squats, and lunges you can physically accomplish, without motivation you are going nowhere fast. What motivates people to exercise? What makes and breaks motivation? And most importantly, can you get more?
According to sports psychologists, the three most popular motivations for exercise are health, guilt, and appearance. However, those motivations will get you only so far. It turns out that over the long-term, health, guilt, and appearance just do not take you the distance.
Why? Well, it has to do with types of motivation. Sports psychologists talk about extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Health, guilt, and appearance are all extrinsic motivations, in that they are driven by external reward such as staving off heart disease in twenty years time, losing weight, or building muscle to impress others. Intrinsic motivations, on the other hand, have rewards that come from within and are often instantaneous. Who does not love instant gratification?
The best motivations are intrinsic, says Nanette Mutrie, a sports psychologist at Glasgow University in Scotland. They can be as simple as enjoying what you are doing or realizing a sense of achievement. On top of that, extrinsic motivations often have long-term goals; it takes more than one game of tennis for you to look and feel healthier. For intrinsic motivation the completion of a game of tennis may be the reward.
"Many people are willing to change their behavior in return for instant rewards," says Dr. Richard Cox, a sports psychologist at Edinburgh University in Scotland. "That's the problem with exercise—there is no instant reward. But if you were exercising more to have fun than to lose a few pounds—and you had fun—you accomplished something." What you really did was create an intrinsic motivation.
So what are the motivational factors that will keep you exercising month after month? If health and appearance (external motivators) are priorities for you, how do you transform them into internal motivations that will take you the distance and deliver the desired results?
Choose an activity you enjoy, says Professor Stuart Biddle, a sports psychologist at Loughbrough University, United Kingdom. If you stop enjoying it, cease, desist, and find something else. According to Biddle, many of us exercise the way we think we should, not the way we would prefer.
One of the reasons so many New Year's fitness resolutions sputter and die in mid-January is because it is dark when you get up, it is dark when you come home, and it is sub zero outside. So plan your New Year's resolution to include indoor activities in the winter and outdoor activities when the days are long, and there is light and warmth.
Play the same game with your environment. Studies have shown that people who live in pleasant areas with well-lit streets and plenty of open space are more active than people who live in bleak areas. So rather than running over drab city streets, select exercise locations that appeal to your esthetic tastes.
Rather than sticking with a particular exercise regimen you do not enjoy, mix and match your exercises, says Tristan Huckle, one of the London's top personal trainers. Take the things you enjoy and you know you are good at and intersperse them with the tougher ones.
Tap into what motivates you in the rest of life, and carry this over to your exercise plan. Are you a results-oriented person? Play a competitive sport. Do you enjoy working out alone? Try jogging. Does technology spur you on? Join a gym with hi-tech equipment.
Find a friend to exercise with, preferably a buddy of the same sex, age, and fitness level that is willing to make the same effort you are. Commit to exercising together at specified times during the week. "That way, it's a lot easier to maintain," says Cox. "You're giving yourself a social pay-off, and a social penalty clause; if you don't get out there and do it, you'll lose face and have your friend to answer to."
"Human beings are wired for goals," says Jake Steinfeld, a personal trainer whose clients have included Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and Madonna. "Without them we flounder around."
As a result, trainers use periodization training. "We break down what the client wants to achieve into a series of realistic goals," says Huckle. "When they achieve these, they're more motivated because they feel they've achieved something, and then they're ready for the next goal." This same technique is also successful in weight loss because it is much less daunting to work on losing five pounds at a time than an overall goal of 50 pounds.
Sports psychologists talk of process goals, which are about simply doing the exercise, and product goals, which are about the quality of an exercise.
Most people make the mistake of dealing only in product goals, such as "I will run a mile in five minutes." You will do better overall if in the initial stages of your program you make process goals. Try "I will get out there and run for 20 minutes," or "I'll work out in the gym for 20 minutes" and do not worry about how fast you run or what weights you push. "[People who make] process goals tend to be much more successful," says Biddle.
As every personal trainer worth her pep talk will attest, personal affirmation is very important. Write down or keep in your head positive statements about exercise. "It can be a drag to jog in the evening, but if you can visually remind yourself that 'I feel terrific when I finish' or 'I enjoy running,' it's a reminder that you enjoy these activities and that you're doing them for the right reasons," says Biddle.
Stick notes inside your closet or on your medicine cabinet. In the same vein, keep a written log of your exercise achievements, and write down all the positive pay-offs you got from the activity. When your motivation is flagging, re-read your notes to yourself.
Next time you are contemplating an exercise routine remember that, at least for motivation, it is brain over brawn!
American College of Sports Medicine
American Council on Exercise
Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute
Healthy Living Unit
Elliot AJ, Harackiewicz JM. Goal setting, achievement orientation, and intrinsic motivation: a mediational analysis.J Pers Soc Psychol. 1994;66:968-80.
Ntoumanis N, Biddle SJ. Affect and achievement goals in physical activity: a meta-analysis.Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 1999;9:315-32.
Steinfeld J.Don't Quit: Motivation and Exercise to Bring Out the Winner in You. New York, NY: Warner Books; 1993.