How to Breakup with Your Couch, or The Science of Motivation
What is it that makes it so challenging to peel oneself off the couch and workout? Who are these crazies who jump out of bed at 5 a.m. and run in the cold, crepuscular morning hours? Or who get in a power hike after work when the rest of us want nothing more than to go home and veg. What powers these people, and how do we bottle it?
It seems like it should be enough to merely want to exercise—to want to look better; to want a more toned body; to want to control high blood pressure or diabetes; to want to be healthier. But, as anyone who has chosen the couch over the treadmill can attest, wanting is not enough to actually DO. Are we then destined to have couch-patterned asses? Or is there some secret to motivation—some special trick to getting in that workout?
Let’s put on our science caps and take a look at motivation. There are two types: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to achieve based on external rewards, such as looking better, winning an award, receiving money or attracting a partner. Intrinsic motivation comes from the inside—doing an activity because it makes us feel good, or competent, or skillful. There is no outside or inside pressure to succeed. The feeling we achieve is the reward.
Sometimes, it takes a little extrinsic motivation to get us started. We want our ass to look better, or we crave the energy to get through a work day, so we decide to start an exercise program. We huff and puff and suffer our way through until one of two things happen: we decide we hate working out and stop; or, and this is the best case scenario, we find we start to love the new activity and how it makes us feel. We forget why we started and now do it because we know we will feel great after.
So, how to reconcile the two and stay motivated? Well, we need to find the intrinsic value in what we are doing. Sometimes that takes a little searching, deep into the cobwebbed corners of our soul. Better bring your broom.
REMOVE NEGATIVE THINKING
Easier said than done, I know. But if you go into a workout thinking, I’m so fat; I’m so tired; I’m too busy to be doing this; I’m going to fail, so why begin; People will stare and laugh; I’m such a loser; This will never work…and on and on, then it’s no wonder that it will be tough. If you start your workout packed with these thoughts, then you most assuredly won’t have fun and won’t be sticking with it. There’s no room in your mind for any positive thoughts, let alone actual enjoyment. As Henry Fonda once said, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Investigate what’s behind your negative thoughts. Find a supportive trainer or life coach who can help you along the way. And even more importantly, ask yourself, What would I say to a friend in this situation? We often give our friends the best advice, and ourselves the opposite.
Sign up for that dance class you’ve always wanted to take. Join the local softball league. Canoe or paddleboard across a mountain lake. Go for a long walk with your partner on a sunny day. Run or walk a marathon to raise money for charity. Have fun! Be challenged mentally. Suddenly the fact that you are exercising gets lost in the enjoyment of the activity—in the sense of accomplishment or challenge involved. You’ve (drumroll please) found the intrinsic value and will, thus, be more motivated to continue.
CELEBRATE THE SUCCESSES
When we celebrate our external, appearance-based successes, such as flatter abs or a more toned tush, we will eventually lose momentum. These may help us in the beginning, but won’t contribute to a lasting lifestyle change. We need to alter our thinking and rewire our brain. Rather than focusing on our toned abs, let’s celebrate that we finally held plank for two minutes. Rather than being happy we completed that 5K, let’s celebrate that we played with our children all day without being winded. The act of having made a difference in someone’s life through raising money for a charity becomes the focus, rather than having completed a marathon in order to do so. Make sense? Once again, we’ve looked inward for those intrinsic motivators, rather than the extrinsic.
Start today—not tomorrow. Make a date with yourself and be specific: I will go to salsa class tonight at 6:30 and will wear my red dress; I will wake up at 4:30 and drive to the gym and walk on the treadmill at 8% for 20 minutes and then do 20 pushups and 30 crunches. When you set specific goals the guesswork disappears. You’ve given yourself direction. Find what brings you joy and a sense of accomplishment—and GO DO IT.