Every week I get a few emails from people asking for advice on keeping motivated to workout and eat well. I have a hard time writing a response to these types of questions because motivation is a complex subject, and truthfully I’m not sure I have the answer.
I’ve written before about how people respond to rule differently. Some people seem driven more by an internal sense of responsibility while others rely more on external sources for motivation. How each person responds to different types of forces may vary, but ultimately both factors shape who we are.
Keeping Motivation For Fitness Plans
One of the reasons I think people get off track or lose interest with their fitness plans is because they haven’t made fitness a part of their identity. It’s one thing to set fitness goals like losing 50 pounds or fitting into a certain pants size. It’s a completely different process once you get down to implementing the behavioral changes needed to reach those goals.
I became interested in fitness at an early age. I remember watching the Dan and Dave Reebok Commercials as a teenager and wanting to grow up to be an Olympic decathlete. Dan and Dave were American decathlete rivals who were expected to compete in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Traditionally, the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” has been given to the person who wins the Olympic decathlon. ESPN rated this campaign one of the five biggest sports busts of all time. Dan failed to qualify for the Olympics and Dave finished a disappointing third. Dan redeemed himself by winning a gold medal in 1996, but that’s not really important to my story.
What is important is that there was something about reaching the peak of human athletic performance that spoke to me. I knew that I would probably never be an Olympic caliber athlete. Still, I was drawn to the lifestyle of an elite athlete. The rigorous training. The healthy diet. All the aspects that define who an athlete is.
Building a Fitness Identity
I began trying to take in as much information as possible on what it takes to be an athlete. This was pre-internet so a lot of that information came from outdated books from the local library. I remember one book that talked about some famous tennis player (I think it was Jimmy Connors) from the 70’s using watered down orange juice with a small amount of salt added as a sports drink. Sure enough, I started mixing a little orange juice and salt in my water bottle to carry around with me and drink after training sessions.
It was small changes like that which helped me begin to identify myself as a fit person. Because I view myself as a person who exercises it’s not hard to convince myself to go and work out. In fact, if I go a few weeks without exercising I begin to miss it. This identity as a person who works out is an internal driving force which helps me stay motivated.
I’m also physical therapist. Another part of the reason I keep myself in shape is because being fit is what I think other people expect when they see a physical therapist. At the very least I need to be able to do the exercises that I tell my patients to do. I view this as an obligation, but not in a negative sense. I enjoy my work tremendously. If I were out-of-shape I might still be able to be a good therapist, but I would feel like something was missing. That I wasn’t fulfilling the role people expected of me.
This is an external driving force behind my motivation to keep healthy.
The Zen Habits blog has a great post on the difference between motivation and discipline. The article discusses a fictitious man (Sgt. Lamar) in the Army who appears to be extremely disciplined. The author argues that instead of having discipline, that Sgt. Lamar instead has motivation. He is motivated by his commitment to fulfilling the role he chose as an Army man.
If you removed all of these motivations — the public pressure, the rewards, the positive thinking, the powerful reasons, the accountability, the full commitment, the mutually supportive competition — I believe that Sgt. Lamar would have no discipline.
It’s from these internal and external driving forces that shape Sgt. Lamar into a disciplined person.
I think the same concepts can be applied to health and fitness. To really be successful sticking to an exercise plan or a diet you need to set in place several types of motivational forces.
Sources of Internal Motivation
Pick one new fitness habit and fully commit to it. This is like me with my watered-down orange juice. Choose something small that you can start doing right away. It might be going for a 15 minute walk during your lunch break or doing a few stretches before you shower in the morning. Focus on that one task and allow it to be a part of you.
Sources of External Motivation
Set up an environment that makes failure unlikely. Tell your family and friends about your plan and keep them updated with your progress. Join a fitness social network like Fitocracy which lets you log your workouts, compete, and interact with a big community of like-minded people. Find a reason outside of yourself for exercising and eating right.
When you begin to assimilate fitness into your identity and your surroundings, finding motivation becomes a whole lot easier.
What tools do you use to stay motivated to exercise? How would you respond to someone having trouble sticking to a workout routine?