23.03.2022

How Motivation Really Works in Health & Fitness

 

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes 

I’m often told by my incoming clients “I’m not very motivated to exercise” or “I’m not a very motivated person” and I’ve always questioned the validity of that statement. That's not to say that the individual is telling me a mistruth, but, to me, that the description is inaccurate, and is actually setting them up to fail at a given fitness initiative before it’s even begun…


Let me explain what I mean. First of all, let’s just consider the scenario; I’m not going out asking people at random whether they are motivated or not, the conversation is happening because they have sought out a personal trainer that might be able to help them achieve their goals, so the fact that we’ve even met is proof that there is a desire for change present. This is actually what we should be speaking of when it comes to motivation.

 

It’s probably more accurate to say that when most people think of a lack of motivation, what they actually mean is that whilst they have a desire for change, what they lack is actually momentum toward that goal….

 

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At first glance this could be brushed off as semantics, but words have power, especially the words we tell ourselves and allow to become a part of our identity.

 

This is why positive affirmations can be so powerful - always be careful about letting yourself or anyone else for that matter assign you a disempowering ‘identity’. Therefore, I would suggest a better and more accurate statement to be:

 

I am motivated to achieve my goal, but I don’t have the momentum I need yet.

 

Remember that your subconscious mind will take all identity statements you assign yourself as truth whether they are true or not. Whilst the above statement is by no means a positive affirmation, the statement referring to a lack of momentum is a statement that is based on circumstance, not identity. This is an important distinction because you can change your circumstances easily, but a disempowering identity is going to be much slower to correct.


Motivation is not an identity, it’s an emotional state. And like all emotional states it is impermanent and can be managed. The creation of motivation is actually an automatic process generated by the difference our brains perceive between the way things are and the way we would like them to be. Which brings us back to describing yourself as unmotivated; it isn’t accurate because in seeking out a conversation with a trainer your brain has already identified that the way things are and the fact that you are currently an uncomfortable distance from the way you want them, so consulting a personal trainer is often one of the first attempts at traversing that distance when we’re talking about health and fitness goals.


"Motivation is not an identity, it’s an emotional state."


Getting back to motivation there are generally two distinct types, the first is a desire to move toward something desirable, this would be things like completing an achievement, hitting a quantifiable goal or even feeling a greater sense of confidence or attractiveness.


The other type of motivation is the desire to move away from that which you don’t you don’t want, so in the fitness scape this would be the desire to move away from future health problems, to move away from pain and from an emotional stand point, the desire not to miss out on things like playing with children, attracting a partner or falling short of one's potential.

 

Essentially, the extent to which your brain registers distance between where you are and what you want (or don’t want) will determine the extent to which you feel the motivation to take action, and all of your results will depend on your ability to take that action.


In order to influence this automatic calculation of distance, there are a few things that you can do...

 

Raising your standards


Actively pursing a course of personal development, studying success and methodology in the areas that you seek to advance in will allow you to set a higher standard of expectation of yourself. Setting yourself a new standard will influence the calculation your brain is running about the distance between where you are and where you want to be and, by raising your expectations of yourself, you will start to feel uncomfortable with your current position earlier. You can then use this discomfort to invoke action.


Omitting serious health complaints and major life curveballs, for the most part we accept the level of health & fitness we have set for ourselves. We make sure we get what, by our own definition, we must have, so by raising this marker, you will be forced into action. This is where we need to be radically honest with ourselves. Again, omitting unforeseeable setbacks, where we find ourselves today is a reflection of what we have been comfortable with, or perhaps more accurately, what we have not been uncomfortable enough with.

 

Modelling


Your journey in health & fitness is exactly that, your battle with yourself. Comparisons, particularly via highly curated social media content, can be terrible for self esteem and mental health, because you can end up comparing someone else’s manufactured best against your day to day worst, so just don’t set yourself up for that, there is no fruit there.

 

Having said that, one of the most powerful psychological tactics you can harness is modelling the success of someone like you. Seek out someone who you feel started in a similar or worse position top where you are now and this will serve as both faith and inspiration that it can be done, because if someone else like you has done it then IT IS possible! Your task then simply becomes seeking the right approach and staying at it until you start to achieve the desired results too.

 

Lowering the barrier to what you don’t want


Because we humans are wired to prioritise survival over ‘self-actualisation’, our brains are pre-disposed to weigh a potential threat heavier than an opportunity. Basically, because any real threat could quickly become an existential threat and if we allow that to happen, well… the game is over, so the best choice is always to prolong the game.

 

The quick example of this is to consider how you would feel if you lost £10 of hard earned money, over how you would feel if you found the same £10 on the ground. Generally speaking, it is much more painful to lose the £10.


So how does all of this apply to Health & Fitness? Well, commencing a new health & fitness regime can actually be perceived as a threat, especially if it’s not the first time you find yourself at the point of high discomfort with your current circumstances. Often this is the point at which one remembers previous cycles of restrictive dieting, missing out on social functions, low energy, poor mood and everything else associated with multiple historic attempts at achieving this same goal.

 

This can also apply to those that are out to achieve a health & fitness goal for the first time. The idea of sweating, feeling embarrassed in a gym or being out of breath can all feel like 'threats' associated with exercise and may be enough to block an attempt at a new regime.


If this is the case, it’s important to construct an approach which lowers the perceived threat level to the point that the opportunity feels greater than the threat associated with the hardship of the program. So start out relatively light and gradually build habits which can be sustained.


For instance, lowering the glycaemic index of your meals and enjoying a brisk walk each day would be far more tolerable than jumping headlong into restrictive dieting and deciding that you need to be out jogging each to the point of exhaustion just to move the needle. Working with a program designed by a coach can help you drastically lower the hardship you’ll need to go through to achieve your goal.

 

The unfortunate element of this is that there are some serious health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle or a really inflammatory diet for example, but without a thorough education on the matter or a warning shot in the form of a health scare, it is unlikely for our brains to be factoring these risks into our automatic calculations. It is for this reason that I urge my clients to consciously defend a position of wellness as rigorously as you would fight a disease or illness. Do not wait for the choice to be taken out of your hands.

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Transitioning from motivation to momentum.


Always bear in mind that the consistent approach is how health & fitness achievements are maintained. If you can start this way, you'll have a greater chance of keeping everything you achieve (i.e no rebound).


A great analogy for this process is imagining what it takes to get an aeroplane to take-off. First you have to start the engines; with maximal output, this is the part where you’ll feel the most discomfort with your current scenario. Then, as you are driven forward by this desire to take action, you make sure the runway is clear and free of friction and before you know it you have enough force to generate lift. Once off the runway and at cruising altitude, the amount of energy (or in our case effort) it takes to maintain that altitude is just a fraction of what was required for take-off. It is at this point that you’ve made the transition between motivation and momentum. With continued momentum you are all sure to achieve your goal. 

 

The role of coaching


Enlisting a coach or personal trainer to help you through this process can fast track your results by working with you to consider to ask more of yourself, agree on an all around lifestyle that will get you to your goal and then provide ongoing accountability to hold you to the new standards you’ve set together. The coach is then tasked with taking as much information into account as possible and ensuring that you establish the perfect route to achieving your goals.


 

Afterthought: A very human curve-ball. 


The ironic thing about how we are wired is that the closer you get to your perceived goal, the less ‘motivation’ may feel. In a manner of speaking, this is a good thing - it means that the distance between where you would like to be and where you now are has shortened, resulting in less pain and less intrinsic desire to take action.


To highlight an example, you might start out at 30% body fat and set a goal to achieve 10% body fat, a reasonable goal, likely achievable within 6 months. I guarantee you that you’d feel more motivated at 25% body fat than you will at 11%, because you’ll be getting most of the of the real-world benefits of your new leaner physique at that point (i.e people telling you that you look great) and your internal self talk would have become a lot friendlier this is normal and to be expected.

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