Developing and maintaining a physically active lifestyle involves attention to the issue of motivation. Motivation is the determination, drive, or desire with which you approach or avoid a behavior. Although this may seem to be a simple concept, many different forces make up your motivation to embrace or withdraw from a given behavior. In addition, behaviors tend to be ingrained over time and therefore are often difficult to modify. This may be a positive characteristic for healthy behaviors already in place, but may be an obstacle for change in those areas in need of improvement. However, change is possible, especially with the use of basic principles of behavior modification.
Self-Determination and Motivation
The idea of self-determination suggests that you develop your motivation for an activity based on both your psychological energy and the goal to which that energy is directed. Rather than being an on-and-off switch, motivation slides across a continuum ranging from no or low extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. There are various levels of motivation: amotivation, extrinsic motivation (including external regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, and integrated regulation), and intrinsic motivation.
Amotivation represents the absence of motivation. For example, if you are at this level, you don’t expect exercise to meet your needs and thus you have absolutely no interest in or intention to exercise. Amotivation often includes a “Why bother?” or “What difference can exercise make?” mindset. This level of motivation may be the result of negative experiences in the past that affect your beliefs about the purpose and benefits of exercise. The same is true in relation to nutrition. If you don’t believe dietary changes can benefit your health, you will have little desire to alter your eating habits. To move beyond this level of motivation, consider the overwhelming evidence provided throughout this book on the positive potential impact of exercise and diet.
Extrinsic motivation results in engaging in a behavior for a particular outcome or is based on outside factors. Levels of extrinsic motivation vary as to the degree to which they are internalized. The least internalized form is external regulation. Exercising in order to earn a T-shirt has an external focus. Selecting a side dish of fruit rather than french fries to avoid negative comments from health-focused coworkers is another example of external regulation. Motivation is based on seeking to gain rewards or avoid negative consequences.
Pressure to make healthy choices can also come internally due to shame or guilt; this is referred to as introjected regulation. An example is feeling guilty about not exercising after investing in a home treadmill. Although these types of external motivation have the potential to stimulate exercise initially or promote healthy dietary choices, because the behavior is not freely chosen, the changes are often short-lived and the chances of dropping out are higher. Shifting toward finding personal importance in a given behavior provides a greater likelihood for sticking with the behavior for the long term.
Acting on motivations to exercise that are free of pressure and evaluation by others gives you the best chance of sticking with your exercise plan. Identified regulation refers to believing in the value or importance of a given behavior. An example is making nutritious dietary choices because of your belief that eating well promotes health. The most internalized form of extrinsic motivation is integrated regulation and involves engaging in behaviors that are consistent with other goals and values. An example is exercising regularly as a habit consistent with goals of losing weight and improving fitness.
Intrinsic motivation exists when the reason for exercise is the fun and satisfaction received from the exercise itself and when the reason for healthy food selections is the enjoyment of the meal itself. Intrinsic motivation has the highest degree of selfdetermination. This type of motivation is difficult to achieve because, in many ways, it is less of an achievement and more of an experience. Understanding the levels of motivation can help you develop healthy habits that you will continue in the future. Moving from amotivation toward intrinsic motivation is possible through education, positive encouragement, and successful experiences. Although you may not always attain an intrinsic motivation, by adopting a positive approach to exercise and nutrition you can advance to motives known to increase participation and adherence. The following sections highlight some of the effective
strategies for increasing healthy behaviors.
Self-efficacy is the confidence you have in your ability and is a key factor in making changes in behavior. For example, do you believe you have the ability to be physically active? What and how you think about exercise affects the likelihood that you will begin or continue being physically active. Some ways to increase self-efficacy are included in this section.
Mastery experiences involve selecting activities that you are able to successfully complete. This supports the premise “start low and go slow” when beginning with an exercise program or a new activity. By starting with activities that you are able to carry out, you can build your confidence to continue to exercise. Realize that the body takes time to adapt when you are beginning to be physically active or advancing in your current exercise program. Progression needs to start from where you are now rather than where you want to be. This could also apply to changes in diet. Rather than attempting a complete, abrupt overhaul of what you eat, consider some substitutions that increase the healthfulness of your diet. You can build on this success over time.
Vicarious experiences involve observing peers who are having positive experiences. For example, observing someone your age completing a 10K run may be inspiring to you—suggesting that you can train and do the same in the future. Reading of someone’s successful weight loss using sound nutritional practices and regular physical activity could promote confidence in your ability to lose weight, if needed, with healthy choices. Seeing others like yourself realize success can promote your own confidence in doing the same.
Verbal persuasion involves receiving encouragement from others. Receiving encouraging feedback promotes confidence. Seek those who can provide that type of support and consider how you can provide support to someone else as well. A buddy system benefits both yourself and your health buddy! Feedback and support can even come from social media through connections maintained with online support groups or forums such as Facebook or Twitter.
Physiological feedback includes many aspects such as enjoyment and positive mood. Reflect on the improvements in your fitness that are realized with a regular physical activity program and how these affect your ability to function in routine day-to-day activities. With regard to nutrition, you can enjoy healthy food choices, realizing the nutrients consumed provide energy for your daily activities.
Goal setting is one of the most important aspects of successful behavior change. Without goals, you cannot develop a plan because you don’t know where you want to go. That would be like going on a trip but never identifying the geographic location of your final destination. To succeed, you need to develop both long-term and short-term goals. Long-term goals are like your final destination; short-term goals are the individual routes that will get you there.
Short-term goals are those that can be realistically accomplished within a brief period of time such as this week or this month. For example, if you have been totally inactive, a short-term goal might be to walk around your neighborhood for 10 minutes each night after work for the upcoming week. This short-term goal has some valuable characteristics that you can remember with the acronym SMARTS, as follows:
- Specific: The activity has been clearly defined in terms of both length and location. The goal is unambiguous with respect to what is desired.
- Measurable: At the end of the week, you can reflect back on whether you walked each day after work. This is better than having a goal such as “I want to get in better shape,” which would be hard to measure.
- Action-oriented: The goal includes an activity rather than generalities or an outcome, such as improving fitness or losing weight. It is focused on what you will actually be doing.
- Realistic: The location for the activity is convenient, and the length of the walk is not excessive. Too often, goals are so far out of reach that they become a source of discouragement rather than encouragement. Your goals should be relevant to you and firmly based in the reality of what you can accomplish.
- Timely: This goal is linked with a specific time frame. Rather than being too open-ended, the goal specifies the upcoming week. Without a time-centered approach, you might be tempted to procrastinate starting or moving forward with an exercise program.
- Self-determined: Rather than having someone else set your course of action, you need to be the one to define your goals (and this will promote your self-efficacy as well).
SMARTS short-term goals can provide wonderful encouragement and focus. In addition, they can instill a sense of self-confidence that you can perform the activity. By creating a series of short-term goals, you can build toward your long-term goals. Long-term goals are those that you can achieve in the future—three months to a year from now. With careful planning, meeting your short-term goals should lead to accomplishing your long-term goals.
For example, a long-term goal for a person who is currently jogging only a mile at a time might be to complete a 5K (3.1 miles) race three months from now without having to walk. To prepare for this race, the time spent jogging needs to increase in order to progress from being able to run only about one-third of the target distance to being able to run continuously for the entire 5K distance. Short-term goals could be set weekly with increased distance (e.g., adding an extra lap or two when running on the track). By mapping out short-term goals, an effective plan can be established, leading to successfully meeting the long-term goal.
Continuing to set new goals or revising prior goals keeps you moving forward in your journey toward improved fitness and health. Setting both short-term and long-term goals in each of the fitness areas allows you to individualize your exercise program. You may already be walking on a regular basis but see that you have neglected your muscular fitness or flexibility. By including goals in all areas, you can create a balanced exercise program. The same can be done with the various dietary components. For example, are you consuming adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables? Are you consistently replacing refined grains with whole grains? Is your sodium intake in the recommended range? As you identify your own strengths and weaknesses, you can focus additional attention on the areas in which you struggle, and you can seek to maintain your status in the areas in which you already have a solid foundation.
Using rewards is another way to promote positive behavior change. External rewards may be tangible (for example, purchasing a new pair of running shoes) or
even social (for example, praise and encouragement from a family member or friend). Internal rewards come from within you. An example is the feeling of accomplishment when you try a new activity or when you complete a workout that was challenging. Although all rewards are beneficial, doing activities for internal rewards, or intrinsic reasons, tends to be related to one’s ability to stick with a program for the long term.
Finding Social Support
Social support is a very strong motivator. Consider the encouragement provided by a friend who supervises a young child so that a parent can head outside for a run or attend a group exercise session at a local health club. In addition, parents who model an active lifestyle are providing a wonderful example for their children. It is even better to be active together as a family. A family outing to a local park can be a great stress reliever as well as an opportunity for everyone to be active. Physical activity is important throughout the lifespan. Developing active habits early in life will have lifelong benefits.
Social support skills allow you to reach out to others. Establishing a network of people you trust can help facilitate healthy lifestyle changes. Beyond the family unit, consider coworkers and neighbors, as well as fitness and health care professionals, as sources of support. Others in your personal network can provide encouragement, assistance, and guidance as needed. Participating in group activities—with family members, friends, or local groups—can also be a strong motivator to stay active. Most communities have clubs or associations of people with similar interests (e.g., cycling, running, mall walking, ballroom dancing). These are wonderful opportunities to meet new people and find real enjoyment in your exercise program.
If your family members or close friends do not support your desire to be active or to improve your diet, seek out other support systems. Some people, when facing their own health problems, may feel threatened by your resolution to move forward to better health. Don’t let others sabotage your plans. Find people who have goals for activity and nutrition similar to yours. By encouraging each other, you can generate the motivation to continue. Hopefully, over time, your example will persuade your family members and friends to also join you in making healthy lifestyle choices.