By Cassie White, 13 July 2018.
As a trainer, I consider it a personal failure if I’m unable to motivate a client to make important health and lifestyle changes.
Sure, there are people who just don’t care, but I can spot them from 100 metres away. I’m not talking about them.
I’m referring to the clients who really want to lose the weight. They actually do care, but it just doesn’t happen. They struggle to muster even half the motivation required to do the work, self-sabotage and eventually feel so defeated that they quit. It hurts to watch.
On the flipside, other clients get in and get the job done. Their sights are set and they just plough ahead until mission accomplished. By this point exercise and eating healthily are non-negotiable parts of their lifestyle. It’s who they’ve become.
Same methods, totally different outcomes.
I wanted to give you a simple explanation for your lack of enthusiasm around exercise.
When I started working on this article, my goal was to announce a faulty brain-wiring mechanism that scientists have just discovered, then hand over a solution that’d jump-start your motivation engine and send you running into the land of health, vitality and early mornings.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.
But keep reading, because to an extent, your brain wiring does impact how motivated you feel.
So, what separates my clients who achieve their weight loss goals from those who don’t? Is it a difference in brain chemistry?
The answer is yes … and no.
There’s a system in your brain that impacts your levels of motivation called the reward network, explains Fiona Kumfor, senior research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.
“That involves two regions: the ventral striatum and parts of the pre-frontal cortex,” Dr Kumfor says.
“Together they’re involved in our willingness to work, our motivation to engage in behaviours, and our willingness to persist in that effort over time.
“Really importantly, it influences our decisions on what’s working for us and what’s not.”
Dopamine, a chemical messenger, is the star quarterback in this reward network — it’s released during pleasurable situations, and the ventral striatum and pre-frontal cortex have receptors that are really sensitive to it.
An increase in our dopamine levels to those areas is what gives you that sense of reward, regardless of whether the stimulus is food, sex, exercise, fat loss or winning at Mario Kart.
This dopamine boost is what encourages you to repeat the activity that got you the reward, so you get can it again.
But here’s the kicker: you don’t get that reward rush until after you engage in the behaviour.
Getting someone to engage in the behaviour for long enough to value that dopamine rush in the first place is where myself and many other well-meaning health professionals get stuck.
What makes one person see getting healthy as achievable and another person see it as insurmountable is the Nobel Prize-winning question, Dr Kumfor says, and unfortunately science isn’t quite there yet.
“But what we do know is that humans are bad at focusing on distant future and less tangible rewards,” she explains.
For example, studies have shown that given the choice between getting $10 right now and $100 next month, most of us will go for the instant gratification.
That makes sense when you think of it in terms of making massive lifestyle changes: substantial weight loss seems ages away and might not happen, whereas that schnitzel and six schooners is tonight and guaranteed delicious.
We’re probably better off with setting short-term rewards along the way to the big one, rather than just focusing on the far off and hard-to-imagine pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Maintaining goal-directed motivation behaviour is hard. Instead, focus on creating habits that’ll help you along the way, suggests Dr Kumfor.
“The brain finds it easier to cope with habit than to make decisions every day,” she says.
“If there’s a way to harness habit, rather than forcing ourselves to be goal-directed, that’s undoubtedly going to be easier.
“So, break it all down into small, manageable, bite-sized parts.”
For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, have your ducks in a row well in advance. Schedule in regular times, pre-book and pay for classes, pre-pack workout gear and have it on-hand if you’re exercising after work. Do not go home first.
Train yourself to operate on autopilot so your brain doesn’t get involved. Otherwise, you’ll be veering straight onto instant gratification highway, without stopping off in exercise city.
At the end of the day, in order to do any of that you need to decide whether your goal is actually worth the effort.
There’s a complex relationship between how meaningful a reward is and the amount of effort required to achieve it. You’ll only make the sacrifices if your goal is truly important to you.
Think of motivation as a spectrum. Within that some people will be highly motivated, some moderately and others will find it really challenging. Plus, motivation can change depending on the person and situation.
That’s partly due to differences in the way our brains work.
Take me for example, while I don’t (usually) have trouble being motivated to exercise, I’d much rather clean the oven than start my statistics assignment that’s due in three days.
This is where intrinsic (internal) motivation can help. Intrinsic motivation is when you’re driven to do something purely because you find it enjoyable; it doesn’t matter if there’s a pot of gold at the end. You’re choosing to do it, rather than of out of obligation.
Extrinsic motivation (external), on the other hand, is when you’re driven to do an activity because you’re avoiding pain or punishment, you’re doing it for someone else, or feel like it’s being forced on you.
Sure, it might get you started, but it won’t keep you on the wagon for long.
“People who are more intrinsically motivated tend to work at a higher intensity and are more consistent with their exercise routine,” explains exercise physiologist Alex Budlevskis.
“They derive more meaning and pleasure from the pursuit and are more successful long-term at either sticking to exercise or losing weight.”
That makes sense in theory, but how do you find the intrinsic motivation to do exercise (or statistics), when, let’s be honest, it kind of sucks?
Grab a pen and paper, and answer these questions, Mr Budlevskis recommends:
- What’s most important to me in my life right now?
- How does [insert goal you want to achieve] align with that?
- How will [doing the work required to achieve it] help me reach other goals in life?
Pay attention to simple, yet hugely important things, such as:
- Are you sleeping well?
- Do you have enough time to yourself?
- How often do you do something for yourself, even if it’s small?
- What are your energy levels like?
Whatever answers you come up with, they must come from you and not be influenced by external factors, like other people or expectations.
Remember, we’re going full intrinsic. No-one else can make this meaningful to you.
Now, ask yourself: is the effort worth the reward?
Cassie White is a Sydney-based personal trainer, yoga coach and health journalist.
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