Starting an Exercise Program
Sustaining Motivation for Long-term Change
BY: Troy Murphy |July 2018
The start and failure of exercising and diet programs is epidemic. The local gym is packed in January and empty by the second week in February. Society’s acceptance that exercise and healthy eating is good for us is evidenced by the continual efforts of well-meaning people to improve their lives, repeatedly setting goals, and working to change. But knowledge is not enough. Outside forces and competing motivations sabotage our efforts. We quit what we started; we moan over our failure, and we suffer the mental, physical, and social consequences. We need more than antidotal advice, and a list of exercises to change our lives. We need some self-discipline, essential knowledge, appropriate skills, and sufficient resources to weave the start, the maintenance, and long-term continuing of a healthy living style into the tapestry of who we are.
The motivation to change is a science. The literature is overwhelming. As I browsed through thousands of pages of notes on motivation in preparation to write a short article on beginning an exercise program I felt overwhelmed, my own motivation to write dampened with the expanding magnitude of this project. What started as a great idea, and an afternoon project has turned into a lengthy research and shocking challenge. I suppose that the many dreams of a healthier and sexier body confront similar realities as the dreams collide with the reality of the work. Since you’re reading this article, you know I persevered through the unexpected demands, read through the research, condensed the piles into (hopefully) a simple to read extraction that inspires and motivates.
While the benefits of fitness are extensive, we must acknowledge the limitations. We must confront the ugly bias that silently lurks, judges, and demeans those who do not fit into the neat little packages portrayed as normal and healthy. Our weight and mobility have no claim on our value. We need to stuff the judgments, suffocate the biases, and stop the comparisons. If our goal to lose weight is primarily focused on external acceptance, the passion to change will cool unless rewards are intrinsically felt. When acceptance of others is the real goal, disguised behind the overt attempt to look thin, the feedback from the small gains of exercise fail to reward, not sufficiently alleviating the social needs. Our partner may still neglect, insecurities still loom, and loneliness plague.
Identifying the Underlying Goal
If our real goal, albeit hidden, is social acceptance, we need a more comprehensive plan that may or may not include the gym. Misguided approaches typically fail. We are shooting at the wrong target, even successes feel amiss.
We think life will be wonderful; but still suffer social anxiety. We think life will be stress free; but still feel anxiety. We think our mate will be attracted; but they remain indifferent. When an action fails to provide positive feedback, continuing in that behavior demands more and more self-discipline, and eventually we break.
What is intrinsic satisfaction? Intrinsic satisfaction is the biological reward of a pleasurable emotion. The emotion provides the feedback that strengthens our resolve. We are moving towards our goal and feel good about it. We hop on the scale, see that we lost three pounds, and feel good about it; we experience a rush of a pleasurable emotion. We go to spin class and enjoy the social aspect of the class. We feel relaxed, although muscles are tired. There is a direct connection between the activity and the internal reward. This keeps motivation alive, replenishing the discipline expended in the work.
We can garnish the primary intrinsic rewards with a few external bonuses. A friend’s comment, “you look good.” Or a shopping trip to buy a new dress in a smaller size. These external (secondary rewards) are nice but not sufficient alone.
To increase the intrinsic benefits of a fitness program, we must design a program that delights, not hurts. The old adage no pain; no gain is wrong and destroys many well-intended goals, unless, of course, you love the (healthy) pain of a good workout. Do we prefer the social component of a spin class, or the quiet of a Jane Fonda VHS tape at home? The possibilities are endless—dance, yoga, Pilates, karate, CrossFit, a brisk walk, a game of tennis.
In the process, you may find something that morphs from the path to a goal to a self-motivating passion. Instead of attending a yoga class, we become a yoga master. We no longer need efforts to motivate; we might need some self-discipline to manage the time spent on our passion and redirect the energy towards other activities that need attention. Here, we have arrived, exercise has become part of us and not something we simply do.
If there is no activity requiring movement that you enjoy, then perhaps exercise is not the appropriate path for improved well-being. Instead of embarking on a distasteful journey, demanding limited mental and physical resources, use your precious energy for other self-improvement endeavors, like learning, service, or hobbies. This may not achieve the physical fitness goal, but will add to the richness of experience, giving joy, diminishing anxiety, and consequently adding to your overall health. And isn’t improved health the goal, after all?
"To increase the intrinsic benefits of a fitness program, we need to design a program that delights. The old adage no pain; no gain is wrong and destroys many well intended goals."
We can’t expect exercise to become a passion. It’s impossible to predict prior to engagement who will become addicted to the sweat and joys of planned movement and who will only discover limited pleasures. We must maximize resources while we stumble through an exciting new world. Time, energy, and money are finite resources, carelessly spent and self-discipline falters. There is an abundance of used workout equipment.
A new collection of workout clothes may be inviting and even motivating (secondary reward) but unless it leads to discovery of more compelling intrinsic rewards we are doomed, left at home in a shiny new outfit foreign to the glorious perspiration of purposeful activity.
We maximize resources with convenience. The more inconvenient our plan the more discipline required. Do we plan to get up at 5 a.m. when we hate mornings? Are we signing up for a CrossFit class on the far side of town? Does the gym membership seriously constrain our budget? Added inconveniences add up, increase anxiety, and intensify the need for stifling demands of self-discipline.
Another effective practice to maximize resources is sharing the load, gathering support from outside sources. Others and smart phones can provide needed boosts, bringing goals back into focus, forcing a welcoming slip of the mind back to the light. A workout buddy is an excellent way to share the load. Each motivating the other. A paid trainer can also serve this purpose. You can’t just not workout—you must call and cancel (and give a self-protecting excuse).
Keeping a goal private is preparation for failure. We preserve our self-image by avoiding the exposure to others that we failed. This is a helpful path—if self-preservation and failure is the intent. We need support. We need communication when we succeed and when we fail.
One Change at a Time
The evidence is clear that change is difficult. Few people master the constant invitation of change. Most us prefer the security of sameness. A major source of failure is with a small jolt that are life is off track, we return from the conference, emerge from the catastrophe, or enjoy a momentary enlightenment and plan to completely overhaul our lives. The rushes of motivation undercut the difficulties of change and demand on limited resources.
Embarking on too many goals at the same time prepares us for failure. We cannot function effectively when every action must be cognitively dictated. Our lives are brimming with habits and behaviors that limit enjoyments and futures. Instead of attacking them all and failing, we should identify one and succeed. Setting a pattern of success.
Distal and Immediate Objectives
Sometimes we don’t know how to succeed. We know how to set goals; we do it all the time. But we don’t know how to succeed in achieving our goal. Learning how to successfully move through the process from desire, goal, and final accomplishment is a skill. Nothing teaches this skill better than success.
We need to ascend to a higher realm, reaching a new pattern, and setting a favorable trajectory for life. When we set goals and fail, we create a pattern. Soon we unconsciously prepare for failure and jump at justifying causes to conveniently use to abandon effort. Sadly, life slips into a series of disappoints fueled by self-defeating behavior.
The pattern of failure must be replaced with a new pattern, teaching that effort, persistence and resiliency is rewarded with success. Once success is instilled, the journey becomes less frightening, losing the need for protective escapes, and justifying protections. We do this by complimenting goals with a series of smaller, easily obtained goals.
We refine goals such as: Begin a workout program (vague); and lose seventy-five pounds (ginormous) to a series of defined, and achievable objectives. The small, easily accomplished goals begin a process of successful attempts at change, creating new mental maps of success, and releasing the tension of inevitable failure that accompanied all previous goals. We design a plan, breaking down the process to the smallest elements with goals as simple as identifying two gyms we may wish to join; Setting an appointment or speaking with a friend about our intended goals. We follow the accomplishment with another goal, and then another, and then another, gently leading to our more distal goal of losing seventy-five pounds.
A deadly adaptation to goals is our unconscious ego-protections. Failure to achieve a goal damages self-image. The defeat exposes deficiencies in self-discipline. In stead of examining the causes, restructuring our efforts, and seeking a manageable approach, we ignore the failure to soothe our ego.
We combat unconscious defenses by intentional and regular evaluations. We must purposely evaluate our progress and break-downs. The smart phone can assist. We can schedule and set alarms to force attention to necessary check-ins, asking how we are progressing, determining the next steps, and evaluating the inherent stumbles interrupting the original excitement. If justifications routinely taunt are resolve, we may need assistance with our assessments, borrowing balance an outside perspective.
Healthy assessments approach failures with compassion and curiosity. New behaviors are foreign. We need to discover what does and doesn’t work. Missteps and bungled attempts, instead of being catastrophic, are instructional. The process educates, giving us wisdom, moving us towards an expert status in a particular area of human development. Failures signal a need to change strategies, more resources, or more persistence.
The Road to Wisdom
Well, it’s plain and simple to express.
Err and err and err again,
but less and less and less.
~ Piet Hein
Preparation for Obstacles
There will be failure and setbacks, even of the smaller more defined goals. Change is, by its very nature, unfamiliar territory. We can’t predict the landscape of a field we have never travelled. We will stumble on a few pot holes, overgrown patches, and unplanned fences. If we expect ease, obstacles can be unsettling, impeding our flow, and forcing reconsiderations, adjustments and extra energy. We should expect obstacles, we just don’t know what they will be. When we trip, instead of screaming, “How could this be happening!” we recognize that this is one of those events that was bound to happen. We examine the impact, learn from the frustration, and re-plan our route. Each interruption bestows a little wisdom, teaching us more about our exciting journey.
An essential part of planning is addressing the possibility of obstacles. A little thought, and investigation should reveal common obstacles which are likely to interrupt our work. We must address these likely interferences early in the planning, entertaining solutions: if that happens, then I will respond like this. By preparing for the obstacle, when the trouble appears, our preplanned response is given energy. When surprised the obstacle draws the energy, demanding cognitive adjustment.
Preparation helps avoid the “what-the-hell effect” likely to gain traction when our efforts are stopped. The obstacle provides a ready-made excuse to give up and find relief in the comfort of old patterns of failure.
One of the most effective approaches is to organize an environment that limits temptations and weakens the power of obstacles.
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“The connection is context. We tend to do the same things in the same circumstances.” ~Jeremy Dean
Habits are unconscious action set in motion by the surrounding context. The environmental triggers and people are significant influencers. We habitual act the way we do, because we live in the same environment, not requiring novel or cognitive responses. Familiar cues set our habits into action.
Overtime the same environment pushes the same behaviors, entrenching a deep cycle of trigger and reaction. We act without the need for conscious intervention. The action gains power, building powerful inertias to act in a particular way under a given circumstance.
“First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.” ~ by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
The cognitive interruption to act differently in the same environment zaps mental resources, draining our strength to resist, and eventually we fail. Our advanced cognitions allow for a more powerful intervention. We step back, identify environmental triggers, and make the changes there. I easily avoid purchasing cookies while grocery shopping; I can’t, however, resist an open package of cookies beckoning from the pantry. I make a change where the temptation is weak to avoid a confrontation with a stronger urge where self-discipline is fatigued.
Art Markman in Smart change states it this way, “habits are easily disrupted by changing the environment. Habits create a direct relationship between a state of the world and a behavior. When the world changes, the habit can no longer be performed mindlessly.”
The environment works two ways. The old environment triggers old habits; but our new environment becomes the trigger for new habits. We weaken the environmental influence on the undesirable and strengthen the connection to new environments to the desirable.
“The key is to create a consistent mapping between the environment and a behavior and then to repeat the behavior in that environment.” Art Markman
Examining and restructuring our environments is an essential ingredient of daily and weekly assessments. Instead of harsh judgments on our ability to change, we view failures through a wider lens, taking in the surrounding influences, people, and emotions. We make mental notes and explicit plans to avoid the overwhelming conditions that contributed to the lapse in motivation.
You can Do this
We can persist and navigate the difficulties. Be kind to yourself, giving support rather than motivation deadening harsh judgments. As we see change as an adventure rather than a dreadful necessity, we encourage resilience in the face of setbacks, and slowly work towards those valiant goals of a healthier life and a joyful hobby. We become the select few that can enjoy the empty gym in March while the masses return to their disappointing lives they were trying to escape. Next January, when the gyms are crowded again, you can find a struggling soul and mentor them on the fabulous path of betterment.
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