What Does Your New Year’s Resolution Mean to You?

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Here we are again! The early weeks of the year are a time for high aspirations and lofty plans to reinvent ourselves by way of time in the gym. Everywhere we look we see exciting ads on social media, print media and TV for all sorts of diets and workout plans. These products are pitched with soaring rhetoric delivered by beautiful people to those who likely perceive themselves as being less-than-beautiful—but they have hope! (Or maybe they’re desperate.)

What will all this look like by, say, April? A lot of those ambitious plans will be tossed aside, buried and forgotten. Multitudes will give up entirely and blame themselves. It’ll all start again next year…

The M-word

The title of this post asks a question—and it’s a crucial question!—because your Big Resolution depends on the answer. Do you have an emotional connection to your New Year health & fitness goal? If so, is it positive or negative? Does your goal have meaning to you? How do you feel about your resolution?

The big word here is motivation. There are several types and the one that’s driving a new year’s resolution can make it or break it.

I found an excellent three-part series from Psychology Today called Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track (Part I, Part II, Part III.) The article does an excellent job of discussing several different flavors of motivation. Two types of motivation will get you where you want to be. The other two… aren’t so helpful.

Identified and intrinsic motivation

Part I of the article describes these two types of motivation as follows:

“Identified motivation is when you have a positive view of losing weight or it is a behavior that you value. Maybe you want to be healthy for a loved one and your future together. For identified motivation there is a strong sense of personal importance and meaningfulness in the task.

Intrinsic motivation is the prototype of self-determination because the behavior is engaged for its own sake, for the simple pleasure and interest in the activity. This motivation involves a focus on the task and produces energizing emotions such as interest, enjoyment, and challenge.”

An example of identified motivation might be a grandparent or parent who recognizes the value of being healthy, strong, and able so he or she can keep up with the kids and grandkids. These people value a high quality of life and they see that a vigorous exercise and healthy eating is the way to get there.

I’ve met a lot of people in the gym like this. Exercise may not be their first love but a positive sense of purpose drives their actions.

I’ll use myself as someone who is intrinsically motivated to exercise and eat right. Essentially I love to pick up heavy things and sweat a lot. I love the process of training for a race or a bike tour. I love being in the gym with the weights. Skiing, cycling, and hiking are pure fun. I do these things for the sake of doing them. They are a reward in themselves.

Both types of motivation involve high degrees of autonomy. An individual motivated in such a way makes a conscious choice to engage in exercise, healthy eating and the like. His or her values and identity align closely with their healthy lifestyle and action. His or her efforts toward fitness occupies a significant and positive place in his or her life. Thus a trip to the gym, a run, a bike ride a swim or a healthy meal is motivated from within.

Part II of the article discusses two studies (here and here) that looked at long-lasting weight-loss management to understand why some people are successful while so many others are not. Regarding the findings the article says:

“These groundbreaking findings have shown that what plays a central role in the maintenance of exercise and physical activity behaviors are:

  • Enjoyment
  • Perception of competence
  • And intrinsic reasons for weight loss”

External and introjected motivation

External and introjected motivation are a stark contrast to identified and intrinsic motivation. The article describes these motivations:

“External motivation works on external demands and operates on the contingency of if/then:

‘If I lose 10 pounds, then I will go to my 15 year high school reunion.’

This motivation is purely external to your interest in losing weight. It is done in order to obtain a reward or avoid a negative consequence.

Introjected motivation is also motivated by external reasons to change. But it differs from external motivation in that it is done for somewhat internal reasons as well.

The problem, however, is that these internal reasons are negatively focused. They come from feelings of guilt or shame.”

It’s clear that these types of motivation involve doing something the individual would rather not do. Negativity is at the core. There’s far less autonomy, less control by the individual in their choice and probably no fun at all. External forces are largely in charge here. We are rarely happy when we perceive that something is forced on us.

If someone is extrinsically motivated he or she isn’t necessarily doomed. The article says:

“In one study conducted in England on 425 government employees, researchers found that extrinsic motives such as appearance and weight management dominated in the early stages while reasons related to intrinsic motivation such as for enjoyment or revitalization were stronger in the maintenance stage.

Studies such as this show that external or introjected motivation can produce results but only in the short term, and as we know, weight-loss is a long term problem.

It’s okay to have extrinsic motivation as long as you are not operating only on extrinsic motivation.”

The F-word and the S-word

I’m not talking about those F- and S-words. I’m talking about feeling and should. In reality we pursue all of our fitness endeavors because we want to feel a certain way. We may want to feel strong, healthy, sexy, or confident. Maybe we feel exhilaration or feel a sense of accomplishment at the achievement of a challenging goal. These are positive fuel sources for our efforts.

On the other hand, we may pursue a fitness goal because we feel we should. We feel we should look better because we feel external pressure from popular images, peers and/or family.

My guess is that what drives these negative shoulds are hopes of alleviating lots of negative feelings. We may not feel loved or worthwhile. Maybe we feel guilt, shame, rejection or intense social pressure to look a certain way. Whether we fully know it or not, we may believe that being thin or muscular will give us a feeling of peace, love and acceptance.

The problem here is we are basing our happiness on how others perceive us. Chances are that if these negative motivations are driving us then even if we become muscular and thin—then all we are is muscular and thin… But we’re still miserable. Who wants that?

Finding positive motivation

There are some strategies that may help. I won’t reprint everything on the subject, but Part III of the article discusses something the writer calls the Foundational Why. This goes to the real reason(s) why you’re working out, dieting, etc.:

“Start by sitting down with paper and pencil and write down why you want to lose weight or get in shape. Write down every reason that you can think of.

After you have gotten all of your thoughts down, go over your responses.

What are the reasons? Do they come from outside yourself or from within? If they come from within, how much are they integrated with your sense of self?

For example, let’s say one of your responses is similar to one of the following:

  • Because I should
  • Because I am ashamed of my weight
  • Because I want to look good for summer

If any of these sounds close to your answers, it means that you are working from extrinsic motivation.”

Following this Foundational Why process, the article discusses the You-at-Your-Best Exercise. It goes like this:

“Think of a time where you felt you were at your personal best. What were you doing? Who were you with?

This event is like a snapshot of you in your finest hour and something that you feel most proud of. It could be a really big action or it could be a small action but it exemplifies you and your character.

Write down this event in detail and then go over it. What does this event say about what you value in life, about what individual strengths you already possess, about what you enjoy doing just for the sake of doing it.

Ask yourself:

  • Why did you choose this event?
  • Why is it meaningful to you?
  • What does it symbolize or represent?

The You at Your Best Exercise will help you connect improving your health to things that you really care about, to things that mean something to you, by showing you what your personal drivers are. 

For example, perhaps this exercise reveals that you are someone for whom family is really important. In which case, think of your foundational why in terms of your loved ones or connect them with your health goals. It could be exercising with your partner, or perhaps going on walks with your parents.

It may reveal that you get energy from your sense of ambition. In which case, setting ambitious goals is something that you value and drives you to succeed. Maybe then sign up for an upcoming marathon?

Perhaps it reveals that when you are at your best you are using your humor and sense of play. If so, consider how to tap into that energy when deciding what fitness classes or activities to join. For some people, the addition of wearing silly socks to the gym can change their attitude to working out. 

The idea behind this exercise is to understand what naturally interests you in order to draw upon that to create lifestyle changes that you will enjoy.”

It’s sort of in the touchy-feely realm but I like these ideas a lot. If someone has any negative emotions around fitness, exercise and new year’s resolutions then this type of work should be mandatory for achieving those gleaming goals. (Never mind exercise and fitness, understanding our motives is crucial for achievement in any discipline.) Through it we gain valuable awareness of ourselves, what drives us and what’s most important to us. There is simply nothing more important for success.

My Chronic Injury is an Addict

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I'm getting off the wheel.

I’m getting off the wheel.

I’ve had recent discussions with two clients about lingering injuries. The talks brought to mind how my approach to my Achilles tendon pain. I think this new mindset will prove essential to my staying healthy and avoiding future Achilles problems. Maybe it’ll be useful to you.

To be clear, I don’t currently have any Achilles pain. I’m able to run long, sprint, and trail run consistently with no trouble. I want to keep it that way for the rest of eternity and that’s what brought up these thoughts.

Both my clients and I have battled aches and pains in particular regions that have come and gone… and come and gone again over the course of time. Our shared narratives go something like this:

I have pain. I see a physical therapist or chiropractor. He/She prescribes exercises that help. They help. I quit doing said exercises. (Those exercises are BORING as hell. They don’t feel like exercise. They don’t feel like they’re making me stronger, leaner, or more powerful.) Pain comes back at some point. Repeat the process.

Does this chain of events sound familiar?

My aches and pains have caused me to miss training, miss races and forced me out of some of the activities that I enjoy with passion. I’d like to avoid this process, thus I need to do something different from how I’ve done things in the past, otherwise I can expect the same result as before. (We all know about the definition of insanity right?)

I’ve decided that my Achilles tendon is… well… my Achilles heel. It’s my weak spot. For whatever reason, this part of my body is susceptible to problems. Therefore it needs special consideration and care. I’m now motivated to continually do the things that seem to strengthen my Achilles tendon. I want to turn that weak spot into a bulletproof, iron-clad appendage that’s nearly indestructible.

That means almost every day I’m doing standing heel raises. Some days I do high-reps/low-weight. Other days it’s heavy-weight/low-reps. I do bent-knee heel raises and straight-knee heel raises. I do heel raises with a straight foot and with my foot turned in and out. Some days I do lots of heel raises. Some days I do fewer.

My point has less to do with heel raises to cure Achilles problems and more with my behavior and thinking around the problem. The point is that I now constantly tend to this thing that has been a problem for me. I view it as an ongoing project that will never really be complete.

The analogy I’ll make is to that of an addict. Overcoming addiction is an ongoing process. An addict is either getting better or getting worse but he’s never treading water and staying put. An alcoholic/coke addict/sex addict/shopping addict/whatever-addict is an addict forever. Like an addict, it would probably be more enjoyable for me to quit doing my dinky, boring exercises and tell myself that I’m OK. I could easily do whats comfortable and easy.

I could say, “I’m fine. I’m cured. I don’t need to worry about this problem. It’s behind me forever now.”

If I take that tact though I should expect my problem to creep back in, and I hate that thought.

Losing the ability to run and jump is a powerful source of motivation for me. With proper motivation comes the ability to apply willpower to the problem. With this mindset, the boring and tedious exercises become easy. Doing them isn’t an issue at all now.

As with almost everything we do in fitness (and everything else in the world) the real target here is the brain, not the injured/painful area. If I want continued success and progress then I must decide to take the appropriate action. If I want a specific outcome (Achilles pain gone forever, weight loss, muscle mass, etc.) then I must adopt the behaviors that will get me there. I need to make new habits. That requires conscious thought and deliberate action. The work won’t do itself.

So there.

 

Motivation vs. Willpower

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I mentioned in the last post that I was reading and enjoying Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults. Chapter five of his book contains some information that I found very thought provoking. This chapter discusses the process and details of those who’ve successfully maintained weight-loss. The National Weight Control Registry observed several key behaviors in those who lost weight and kept it off.

  • Weighing: If weight-loss is your goal then looking at a scale will tell you if it’s happening.
  • Monotonous eating: Eating very similar meals repeatedly makes it easy to track caloric intake. Further successful weight-losers to vary their eating less during the weekends and holidays. (“Monotonous” may imply boring. I don’t believe it has to be that way.)
  • Exercise: What we eat (and don’t eat) is absolutely vital for weight-loss. It seems that exercise is absolutely vital for maintaining weight-loss

(Interestingly, subjects do report eating healthier eating as part of the weight-loss process, no specific diet was identified as being best.)

More important than habits is the motivation that underlies these habits. Motivation is different from willpower.  Fitzgerald suggests that motivation activates will power, sort of like computer software (motivation) activates the hardware (willpower). He says that “evidence suggests that most people have all the willpower they need to lose weight and that what separates the successful losers from the failures is motivation.

The NWCR study found that 90% of members reported having failed in previous weight loss attempts. In other words, these people failed a lot. It seems the people who succeeded kept on trying due to motivation. This got me thinking about my own views on willpower vs. motivation.

It seems that we often talk about willpower as a negative thing. We criticize ourselves because we don’t have enough of it and we wind up eating a bunch of cake. Or else we see overweight people, drug addicts or smokers and we say they don’t have the willpower to lose weight or quit. The word willpower mostly seems to come up when there’s something negative drawing us towards it and we know we’ll succumb to this evil thing, and then we’ll hate ourselves afterward. The practice of willpower seems a cold, Spartan type of undertaking.

In contrast, something that motivates us is a positive thing that we want. It’s something that makes us look past the temptations, triggers and roadblocks to our success. We may not be perfect in our eating and exercise habits but the motivating factor makes us keep trying. I think in a lot of cases motivation actually makes us want to undertake the healthy behaviors that lead us to our goals. As noted in Diet Cults, it’s motivation that makes for successful willpower.

Not that everything about our motivation is positive. Fear may be a great motivator. For instance, a doctor says, “If you don’t lose weight you’ll have a heart attack in five years.” For a lot of people, that may be the type of revelation that motivates them to lose weight. A similar scenario may play out if we lose a loved one to a preventable illness like diabetes.

Maybe shame motivates us. I recall a client who stepped on a scale, saw the numbers and said, “That’s it!  I can’t do this anymore. I HAVE GOT TO LOSE WEIGHT.”  And he did.

Money is one of the best, most popular motivators out there. Look at participants on the Biggest Loser. They go through an especially ugly hell to win fame and fortune. (I’ve seen all of about 3 minutes of that show. It scared me.)

I was speaking to a very wise friend about all of this and he said that inherent in this motivation to change is a genuine belief that a change for the better is possible. Beyond the fear mentioned above, we must see and believe in a better life for ourselves. A living belief in a better future sustains motivation. Without this belief motivation withers and dies.

From what I know, motivation must come from within. I’m not sure how to impose motivation on someone. I think perhaps I can draw motivation out of a client by asking the right questions. This is a challenging prospect! This involves a developing a fairly intimate relationship with a client and asking some nuanced, sensitive questions. This has given me a lot to think about.

What motivates you in your fitness endeavors? Surely something must motivate you to wake up early or carve out time in your busy day to grunt, groan, sweat and lift heavy objects. Most of you aren’t pro athletes or models. So why do you do it? I’d like to know. What makes you keep on keeping on?

Why do you exercise?

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Do you have physique goals?  Is sporting performance important to you?  Do you exercise for the purpose of disease prevention?  Maybe it’s all or some of the above.

For whatever reason, some of us simply enjoy picking up heavy steel objects and running/biking/climbing/jumping around to the point of exhaustion.  We derive pleasure from discomfort: burning, aching muscles; lungs on fire; sweat in the eyes…  What we do isn’t always fun like a birthday party but deeply fulfilling.

The fascinating thing to me about exercise is that it is clearly very simple in most regards.  Pick up something heavy several times.  Move fast enough and/or long enough to sweat and pant.  That’s exercise for the most part.  It ain’t Greek philosophy, trigonometry or neurosurgery.  Yet look at how many smart, highly accomplished people simply cannot find a way to do something so simple—even though we recognize how vital exercise is to a long, healthy life.  Think of a time when you’ve pushed yourself—or have been pushed—to extreme physical exertion.  It doesn’t take complex mental skills but we all know these kinds of efforts take tremendous mental fortitude.