Take an Intention Inventory:
Lisa Lewis. Dr. Lisa Lewis (EdD, CADC-II, Licensed Psychologist).
Let’s go: grab a scrap piece of paper, a napkin, or open a “post-it” on your computer, and write down 10 reasons why you work out (or “lift”, “train”, “exercise”, ect) … Don’t think too hard or too long… just jot them down as fast as you can.
Give yourself about 2 minutes…
Alrighty. Now put that aside for a moment, and consider the construct of motivation.
As complicated, ever-changing, growth-directed creatures, we humans are separated from the rest of the animal kingdom by our psychology – and specifically, our innate desire to grow, improve, and gain mastery over our environment(s).
In a word, we are motivated. We pursue careers, follow dreams, take up hobbies, and aspire to be better than we are. Since you are reading Tony’s blog, you are motivated to be one of the following: fitter, faster, stronger, smarter, beastly-er, better. Motivated to enhance your fitness, you have most likely adopted behaviors and developed habits that others would consider “extreme”, “impressive” and “disciplined”.
How on earth do you do it?
Anyone can exercise, and while many begin, or begin again, most do not persist over time. We make resolutions that influence behavior for a day, a week, or a month, but what makes it stick? How do we persist in activities that require discomfort, delayed gratification, and sweaty smelliness? Those of you who have struggled with finding – and more commonly keeping – motivation for health and fitness have most assuredly wondered the same.
Motivation drives us – but not just in one direction or toward one outcome. A variety of intentions move us.
One way to conceptualize motivation is along a continuum: at one end we are motivated by 100% intrinsic enjoyment derived from engaging in the activity itself, and nothing else; at the opposite end, we are motivated in order to obtain a reward or to avoid a punishment. My personal favorite theory of motivation, the Self-Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) posits a range of motivations from wholly external to entirely internal, and all together, these motives combine, compliment, and conspire to move us to act, work, and grow.
Now, let’s look at your list of results along this “continuum” of motivation to see what helps you to “get after it” at the gym, day after day. Label each one of your answers with the number corresponding to the best description of that motive:
1. Reasons including “getting something” good, or “avoiding something” bad are externally regulated. For example, some people are incentivized by employers to walk (measured with pedometers), go to the gym (proved with attendance records), or join a sports league. Oppositely, you may be externally regulated to avoid something punitive, like chronic pain due to inactivity.
2. If you wrote down anything about “feeling guilty if I don’t go” or “being proud after a great workout!” than you are also motivated by introjected regulation. Partially internalized, this motivation works by either moving you away from shame and guilt, or by pushing you toward pride. (Unfortunately, this is a motivation often used by the media and commercial gyms, which impose guilt and shame for not “getting in your run” or doing regular physical activity… this is unfortunate because this type of motivation often leads to behaviors which become “extinct” over time).
3. Any statements about your identity and your values. For example: “Training hard is who I am!” “I really value being strong and fit, and I make sacrifices to keep myself healthy”, “I’m athletic and I want to look at feel athletic” and “I want a long, healthy, happy life”. If you get to they gym due to “Identified” or “Integrated Regulation”, then you identify with exercise and fitness, and/or exercise behaviors are integrated into who you are as a person. You value the outcome of your hard work, and find the results personally meaningful. It may not be fun, but dammit, you feel that it’s all worth it.
4. Intrinsic motivation. Examples include, “I’m in my zone/happy place/flow when I’m training”. “I love getting in there and working hard”, or “it makes me happy!” Intrinsic motivation is pure, and someone operating under this motive is training solely for the internal state that is created (as opposed to the outcome).
So, what did you find?
Lots of 3’s and 4’s? Hope so! If that’s the case, you most likely have no trouble staying on track with your fitness. If there were mostly 1’s and 2’s, then you might have a harder time… you may stop-start often with workouts or resolutions… you may beat yourself up, have a “good week” or month, but then find yourself back out of the swing of things again.
If you notice a mix of scores 1 – 4 on your list, then you’re regulated by a range of motives that combine and complement one another. For example, someday you may feel excited to get to the gym and happy just to “get after it”. The following day you may be sore and have other things you’d rather do, but you go again because your fitness goals matter to you, and it means a great deal to you that you “stay on track” and hold yourself accountable.
Other days you might feel tired and start to fantasize about skipping the gym to binge watch some Downton Abbey (or maybe that’s just me), but you realize you’ll feel guilty if you don’t go, and “better” once you do, so you drag yourself anyway.
Then other days you might just to because you promised a friend you’d spot or train with her, or because it’s Saturday and you’ll be going out to a big delicious dinner later on that you want to “earn”.
As for the “best” kind of motivation? Research has demonstrated that intrinsic motivation leads to persistence in a behavior over time – but as we all know, you can’t “love” to workout every day… or even once a week.
But if love gets you deadlifting once a week, and guilt gets you pressing another day, and your lifting partner pushes you to glute ham raise a third, and the fourth day you go because it’s what bad-asses do – then what you have is a pattern.
A consistent, regular, rain or shine, good days and bad pattern.
The blend of motivations – the drive to work on yourself across a continuum of motives – is the magic elixir to a long, fulfilling life of health and goal-directed fitness.
So: Embrace the guilt that gets you off the couch! Love the “masochist” inside that wants to push the sled and “punish” you. The fun from your run and shame from your shake work together in pursuit a well-meaning, worthy goal.
Run with your reasons to get to the gym, no matter what they are. In the end, you’ll be fitter for it.