By Geoff Carter

Statistics show that by now, only 8% of people who made a health-related New Year’s Resolution will have kept to it. The other 92% have thrown in the towel.

The problem is that resolutions rely on willpower. For example, an exercise resolution is often made on the basis of “shoulds” or “musts.” It is linked to some reward, usually externally driven like looking better or something that will become relevant only in the future like warding off chronic disease.

Our behaviours are largely governed by two “systems” – logic and emotion. The logic system tells us to exercise because it is “good” for us and necessary to lose weight. We know we need to move or we will suffer a long, slow and, most likely, painful demise. Logically we understand that movement is essential for every living cell in our body and every synapse in our brain.

Logic

Acting based on logic usually requires effort but more importantly: willpower. Willpower is a finite resource and slowly but inevitably exhausts itself with use. So once the initial optimism fades and the reality of the effort required sinks in, willpower is no longer enough to maintain momentum. Where is the reward for the effort?

What people need to maintain any behaviour change is a compelling enough reason related to some instant rewards so that the changes they make are fuel for continued changes. When one’s drive comes from themselves it is self-generating and does not require willpower (PTA Global refers to these as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation).

Michelle Segar’s (2015) research in her book, No Sweat How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, suggests that what most are missing to cultivate that renewable source of motivation is a more compelling “why.”

Emotion

In contrast to the logic-based system discussed above, the emotional system is different. It is based on experience, intuition and feelings which motivate people often outside of their awareness because it feels good and that is what makes them want to do it – sans the need for willpower. How they feel about exercise will always win out over the logical reasons.

A resolution to lose weight, get fitter, eat better or reduce stress makes sense. There are many different ways to achieve each of those. But attention to them will be in competition to the other thousand things that occupy the mind and drain the person’s resources every day; their lives as parents, partners and professionals dominate their physical and mental energy.

Why? Because these things are the most important things to them every single day.

But what if the reason they chose to make some changes in their life was not to lose weight, get fitter, or eat better?

What if the reason was to increase their level of self-care? When people are motivated to be more physically active to fuel their best selves, as a more active parent, a more patient partner, or a more productive professional, then they are more likely to prioritise it and thus sustain it over time.

What if feeling better and having more physical and mental energy made all the roles in their life just that much easier?

What if they made a few simple changes that improved the quality of their life right now in ways that they can easily notice and benefit from?

What if 30 minutes spent exercising was the fuel for the other 23 and a half hours in the day and made those hours somehow easier and more enjoyable?

What if your clients felt that exercise was a way to connect with themselves, with nature, and with others? What if it was to relieve stress? Change an overwhelming emotion? To ensure that they can move about more easily and without pain? To sleep better? To improve posture? To nourish every living cell in their bodies? Or just to feel good at the beginning or end of each day?

What if what they did gave them the instant gratification of positive well-being?

Immediate rewards such as less stress or more joy reinforces exercise makes it more likely that that the action will be repeated because it was valuable in the now. We can create a cycle of success that becomes self-sustaining. Segar’s (2015) mantra is: “What sustains us – we sustain.”

Finding the “Why” to Consider the “How”

How do we help our clients to do this? First, we help them figure out their own “why.”

  • Why will they exercise?
  • What will make it meaningful?
  • Why will it feel good?
  • What will exercise give them right now? Not in 6 weeks or at some time in the future but how will it contribute to the quality of their life right now?

In this way, the reason becomes the motivation. The benefits are tangible and meaningful. Exercise is no longer a chore, it becomes a gift.

Only then do we consider the “how.” Make exercise “an experience of moving,” make it self-care not self-punishment. Everything counts; it does not have to be high intensity, uncomfortable or for 30 minutes in some fat burning zone. It does not have to be for weight loss or even health.

Those things will just happen over time anyway. Because your client is exercising and feels much better for it.

Over time I have learned to tease out the “why” by doing a very simple exercise:

  1. I write the word “exercise” in the middle of the whiteboard.

  2. I ask the client how that word makes them feel. Often, they will say it makes them feel heavy or even depressed. They think they need to exercise so that they don’t get heart disease or cancer or so that they can reduce their blood pressure. These rational, clinical almost abstract reasons do nothing to motivate or excite.

In context of their lives, we can play an important role to bring awareness to their current attitude towards exercise, how those attitudes were formed and then we help them explore how it might in fact improve the quality of their life right now.

This is a very different perspective for them and it has very rarely not been successful. And it gives us something meaningful to measure the success of their exercise program against as we work together.

References

Segar, M. (2015). No Sweat How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. Saranac Lake: AMACOM.

Footnote: “No Sweat” was selected as the #1 book in Diet/Exercise in 2015 by the USA Best Book Awards and it achieved the #1 selling book in Exercise and Fitness on Amazon when released. It explains the specific questions and process that Dr. Segar uses with her coaching clients to convert exercise from a chore into a gift, fueling sustainable motivation. Book is available from booktopia.com


Geoff Carter Geoff Carter operates a health coaching business with his wife Janie. From beginnings as a simple personal training business, we have expanded our qualifications and knowledge so that we can help clients account for both the physical and the psychological aspects of health and weight loss and consider an overall approach to their long-term health. www.thrivehealth.com.au