Get Motivated: Goal Setting and the Science of Behavior Change
I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.
An important part of the preparation process is complete: we blew away the myths of diet and exercise and how they affect weight loss, but there is still more preparation to be done before you get ready to “Do.” In order to become a person who can follow through, you must first be motivated to change.
My friend Dr. Peter Sargious is a specialist in internal medicine, with a research interest in chronic disease prevention and management. He has learned the importance of making time to exercise and eat healthily, and he told me of the consequences for those who don’t.
“In my years of clinical practice and in my field of research I see the implications of not prioritizing health among the other demands people face in their lives,” he said. “Unfortunately, I sometimes see the final outcome of these patients’ choices later on in the hospital, dealing with chronic disease.”
Sargious also explained that you can’t be as good a parent, spouse or employee if your health is suffering. “If people imagine these demands necessitate that they place a lower priority on their health, they may discover their lack of attention has a bigger negative effect on fulfilling these duties. Over the short term it may seem logical, but in the long term it’s self-defeating.”
With Sargious’s words in mind, and while we’re still in this “preparing” stage, I
want to remind you of some words I used to close the introduction of this book. Losing it right is about changing who you are. It is not a list of actions but rather someone you become.
Sticking to a regimen of exercise and healthy eating is not easy. Just having a list of dos and don’ts will not make the tough decisions of reprioritizing your life magically happen. It’s a process of integration. Remember, don’t just do this; be this.
Before You Start
In the introduction, I mentioned that adherence to this plan—or any other plan, for that matter—won’t transform you into a bikini model in a month. Age, illness, genetics or your life situation may put you at a disadvantage. Given all that, you should set goals that are achievable (we will show you how).
This doesn’t, however, mean you shouldn’t be ambitious. The slow road can take you a long way. This journey to a healthier you is about incremental improvements, which involve revisiting your goals regularly and making adaptations based on what you’ve learned and the new person you are becoming. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you start.
Avoid the Toxic Mind-set
Forget that stuff about “Only minutes a day.” That word “only” implies that exercise is a form of punishment to be endured to achieve a specific end. The people who use that phrase, or phrases like it, are saying, “We know you hate this, so we’ve come up with a miracle method that minimizes the time spent doing something you detest.”
It’s a crock, not to mention a toxic mind-set. Exercise is not punishment. It’s an awesome and righteous lifestyle to be embraced with passion and vigor until the end of your days.
I feel as if I’m freaking you out. If the old me read the above two paragraphs he’d be rolling his eyes. Don’t worry; we’ll get you there.
Screw the Scale
When it comes to getting in shape, most people focus on reducing the numbers on the scale as their primary goal. I don’t advocate this.
Trust me: I know how powerful the words “weight loss” are. Any time I write an online article with the words “weight loss,” “belly fat” or “metabolism” in the title the clicks go through the roof.
But here I am, in all seriousness, telling you that you may want to consider burying your scale in the storage room.
The scale is not always your friend. It lies. It is not a measure of your health or fitness, and it doesn’t account for muscle gained. It does not in any way represent your worth as a human being.
There are, however, numbers worth tracking as you go on this journey, like miles run, walked or cycled. Laps swum or weight lifted. Classes attended and hills climbed. Fruits and vegetables consumed and healthy meals prepared. Those are good numbers to track. Those are motivating numbers.
Other ways to track progress, or tell if you’re backsliding, are how pants feel, which belt notch you use, how much belly you can grab and how you look in the mirror. Such things can provide more accurate information than a scale.
Yes, there are a number of studies showing that daily weighing helps with weight loss, but I’m suggesting that tracking those other numbers and milestones is an even more powerful motivator. This approach is more Zen-like, the numbers move faster and it represents gaining instead of losing. You gain strength, speed, stamina and overall physical butt-kickery. Recall the brain-boosting effects of exercise that we learned about in chapter 4; I’ll bet if you took before and after IQ tests, you’d see a jump in those results too.
The visual aspect—that “how you look in the mirror” thing—can be the best motivator of all. Simply seeing how much better you look gives much more powerful reinforcement than a number on a machine. Think how cool it will be when your friends say, “Have you lost weight?” and you can reply with honesty, “I don’t know.”
(When they ask your secret, please tell them it’s this book.)
Years ago, I was director of marketing for the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. We picked two overweight students, Audrey and Rory, to go through a five-month fitness challenge. The before and after photos were astounding. Both made tremendous transformations not just in their looks but in their athleticism and health as well.
Guess what the scale said? Audrey lost a whopping six pounds. And Rory? He gained a pound. That’s the difference muscle can make. As I said, the scale lies.
Your body weight is going to be what it’s going to be. Obsessively tracking it doesn’t help you feel the love. Yes, if you follow the advice in this book you most likely will lose weight, perhaps a lot. But try to see that as a side benefit rather than an overarching motivator. The main goal is a happier, healthier you.
If you can do the scale in a way that doesn’t depress you, knowing that weight loss will be slow, then feel free to use it. I’m not saying you can’t. But if you want to transcend it, if you want to bury that sucker under a pile of old tax returns in the basement, you go.
I will continue to mention weight loss in this book because many of the regular people I interviewed as I was writing have lost considerable amounts. I include it because it gives you an idea of what they accomplished. I’m not saying you should never weigh yourself again; I am saying don’t let the scale rule your life. Focus on improving the good numbers I mentioned above, and just let your weight be what it will be. You’ll wind up healthier and happier.
Being motivated to change doesn’t require that you hate who you are right now. Seeing yourself with shame is not a healthy starting point. Yes, people who lose a lot of weight and get in good shape are to be admired, but this does not mean those who are overweight should be shunned.
Even if you’re only aiming to lose 10 pounds, don’t look at the extra fat on your butt, thighs or belly with disgust. As mentioned in chapter 3, this is not a healthy attitude, so reject the stigma. Embrace the new body you achieve and strive to improve it further, but don’t hate the old one. Love your body and do nice things for it.
It’s the only one you’ll ever have.
Okay. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can get down to the business of setting goals, because as Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Besides, having at least part of one eye on the prize will keep you motivated, but it’s important to understand there are different types of goals.
You know when if you’re watching World Cup Soccer (football—whatever) and someone scores, the announcer yells, “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLL!!!!!”?
Yeah, me neither. I personally don’t spend much time watching sports. I prefer to engage in them instead.
Back on topic: scoring a goal in a big match is an exciting, visible, definable outcome. But what most people don’t see when they tune in to the game is the process involved in this achievement, the years and years of intensive effort that make the outcome goal a reality.
So let’s break it down and figure out how achieving goals really works.
A 1985 article in the Journal of Sport Psychology notes that the type of goal you set can make a difference to your outcome. Goals that are more specific and difficult can lead to a better performance than vague or easy ones.1 I’m a fan of aiming high. That way, if you only make it 80 percent of the way, you’re still thrilled with the outcome.
“The evidence is very strong that people who set SMART goals are more likely to pursue those goals,” says sport psychologist Jim Taylor. SMART goals are
Putting a picture of a fitness model on the fridge and saying, “I want to look like that” is not a SMART goal. Saying, “I intend to lose 20 pounds of fat and gain 10 pounds of muscle in the next six months” is.
Your goals need to be realistic, and unfortunately realism is a little hard to come by in a world where there is such a huge amount of bovine droppings in the popular media promising that you can lose [insert ridiculously high number here] pounds of fat in only [insert stupidly short period of time here].
The fact is, getting in shape is hard. And slow. And hard. If it were as easy as those Internet pop-up ads promise, everyone would look like Brangelina from the neck down. If you need a dose of reality, shop at Walmart.
Aim high, sure, but stay within the realm of the possible. Figure out not only what is physiologically feasible for your age, gender, genetics and health status but psychologically achievable. The older, heavier and more time constrained you are, the more challenging it is to achieve ambitious goals. If you’re younger, not too overweight and have fewer demands on your time, the term “the sky is the limit” becomes far more applicable. There is no scientific formula to determine precisely what you can or cannot achieve (and sustain). I’ve seen some amazing transformations in my day. Everyone is unique, and figuring out what is possible for you is part of the process you’ll go through in Stage III.
If you have lofty goals, understand that it’s going to take some serious mental toughness and consistent effort to achieve them. Then you’ll have to sustain that effort to keep your new shape. You can’t go back to old habits and keep the new you.
Now that we’ve clarified how goal setting works, it’s time to actually do it. This is an important part of the preparation process. For this lifestyle overhaul thing to really work, you’ll need two types of goals—outcome goals, and process goals. Let’s start with outcome.
Outcome goals help you sort out where you want to end up. They can also be referred to as your long-term goals. Outcome goals—which should be SMART goals, remember—can be motivated by whatever it takes to get and keep you committed. Here are some examples behind most outcome goals:
- VANITY: Things like the weight or inches lost and muscle gained mentioned above. If you want, you can also have a realistic magazine photo of what you want to look like, or a photo of yourself from years past, in the shape that you want to recapture. I put vanity first on this list because I know what a powerful motivator it is.
- HEALTH: Lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced cancer / Alzheimer’s / cardiac risk, ameliorating of debilitating conditions.
- PERFORMANCE: Finishing a race (or perhaps setting an ambitious time in which to finish it); being able to do an intense fitness class start to finish; being able to lift a certain amount of weight; being able to take the stairs at work without stopping to rest or feeling as if you’re going to cough up a kidney.
Most of the fittest people I know are equally motivated by vanity, health and performance. I like the idea of focusing outcome goals on one-third vanity, one-third health and one-third performance, but it’s important to make these mutually inclusive. Stimulants and extreme dieting can help achieve a vanity goal, but will sacrifice health and even physical performance. Since using vanity as a motivator has potential risks, it’s worth further investigation.
Embracing (a Little) Vanity
You’re so vain, you probably think this section is about you.
Carly Simon may be down on vanity, but I’m cool with it, as long as you don’t go off the deep end and pull a Heidi Montag, wandering into the plastic surgeon’s office and ordering the Barbie Doll–Muppet Show special.
“People are hardwired to strive to look better because it brings benefits throughout life, be it in mate selection, employment opportunities, salary or life in general,” I was told by Gordon Patzer, a professor of business administration at Roosevelt University in Chicago and the author of six books on the physical attractiveness phenomenon.
“While many people state they are pursuing fitness for health reasons, the truth is that these are often secondary to their desire to look better,” he said.
But vanity can go sideways if we put too much emphasis on it. “It can cross a line where we get into anorexia and bulimia,” Patzer said, “or people who do too much exercise and cause injury. We can also go too far by getting radical plastic surgery, taking anabolic steroids or dangerous weight loss supplements, or going on crash diets.”
“After my second child I felt like I had lost my attractiveness,” Susan Sadler, a 40-year-old mother of two in Alberta, told me. “I knew that if I got in shape I would look better and feel better. I started seeing results, and that was a big motivator.” It must be, because between running and weightlifting Susan exercises hard six hours a week now.
Stefan Pinto now lives in Los Angeles, but it was his Wall Street job that made him fat. “I saw a photo with my stomach sticking out, and I couldn’t believe how much weight I had put on,” he said.
Transformation was a slow process, but it brought amazing results and being discovered by a modeling scout. “Making visible progress for me was what made the act of exercise more enjoyable,” Stefan said. (If you want to see just how much progress he made, Google him.)
Vanity motivates me as well. My website is called “Body for Wife,” and I do like looking good for her. There’s a healthy way you can use vanity as motivation to eat well and exercise. It’s not shallow if it helps you live a healthier lifestyle. When I decided to make abdominal definition a goal, I went about achieving it in a smart and healthy way: I cut my beer intake in half and junk food by around two-thirds, and I ran more. Conversely, rocker Iggy Pop got his six-pack abs via heroin and sex with a stream of groupies. Some may disagree, but I think my way is better.
Believe it or not, so does Paul Stanley. Those who know the band KISS know lead singer Paul Stanley’s “Starchild” costume reveals much of his torso. At 60 years old, he fought to stay lean for the band’s 2013 “Monster” tour.
“Nobody wants to see a fat guy in tights,” Stanley told me. “That wouldn’t be fair to the fans.”
Although he has a desire to look good on stage, he keeps health paramount. “I think vanity in some degree is a great incentive,” Stanley said. “Narcissism can be a problem, but taking pride in yourself, you shouldn’t see that as detrimental. We should try to look our best, because the road to looking our best is one that involves being healthy. When I look my best, more than likely I’m also feeling my best.”
Get an idea of what you want to achieve long term. Figure out what your outcome is. Perhaps write it down and stick it somewhere you can see it. Again, aim high, so that if you only make it 80 percent of the way there you’re still thrilled. Also, if you achieve your outcome goals, set new and more ambitious ones. I’ve been working out since 1993, and just two years ago I thought the idea of completing an Ironman triathlon was crazy, but now I’m totally planning to do it. Always having something to reach for makes sustainability of health and weight loss a lot easier.
Now let’s look at how you achieve those goals.
To achieve the outcome, you must focus on the process.
Losing weight, building muscle, lowering cardiac risk factors, improving physical performance, etcetera, all require effort. You need to do things like exercise and eat healthily (and restrict calories) to accomplish your outcome goals; these processes can all be broken down.
You do not just jump into being a hard-core workout warrior overnight. You will hate it and you will hurt yourself. So don’t.
Instead, remember to be the tortoise and not the hare. Start off with a week of exercise that’s only a little out of your comfort zone, but commit to push your efforts in increments until you achieve your own personal level of “good enough.”
You need to push these increments along the following lines:
- the frequency with which you exercise
- the intensity at which you exercise
- the length of time spent exercising
- the difficulty level of the types of exercises you engage in
Now, I don’t know you or your capabilities, so I’m going to offer a pretty easy scenario as an example here. You can push harder than this, as long as you don’t end up hating the process.
Learn to Crawl
“I told my husband, who is 64 and retired, that he had to help me be motivated, and we just started walking together,” said Charlene Casey, a 51-year-old records manager in Los Angeles.
Casey had never been an exerciser and had become obese. And so she and her husband started off easily, just a couple of miles of walking each time. But with each passing month they went farther and farther, to the point that within a few months they found they were walking six miles each outing, three times a week. What’s more, Casey got some inexpensive dumbbells, exercise bands, medicine balls and an inflatable fitness ball, and set up a simple home gym. For instruction, she found videos on YouTube. And then the exercise became a gateway behavior to better eating.
“I lost 70 pounds in six months,” she said. And she’s maintaining. Oh, and her husband lost over 30 pounds. And this inspired their adult daughter to exercise and eat better, and she lost over 50 pounds. Slow and steady can get you there. Believe it.
Create a Routine
In the first week of your lifestyle overhaul you might do something easy and short, say just a couple of 30-minute aquacize classes. Now, aquacize doesn’t burn many calories or do much for improving physical performance, but doing something easy like this is a critical first step: it creates a routine of regular exercise. Don’t expect to lose a single pound of fat during these initial stages, but do celebrate your accomplishment of regular exercise. If you do something physical twice a week—even walking—you’re doing better than most of the modern world, so give yourself a pat on the back.
Really, if you go from doing nothing to doing something physical—anything—a couple of times a week, this is a major accomplishment and an important first step. Be proud of yourself. Just don’t use it as an excuse for chocolate cheesecake. It doesn’t work that way.
Push a Little Harder
When what was uncomfortable becomes comfortable, when you have the routine of a small amount of regular physical activity ingrained in your lifestyle, get a little uncomfortable again. Don’t stick with just aquacize—move on to something harder.
Say it takes six weeks before you’re starting to feel as if this class is easy. In Week Seven, kick it up a notch. Keep the class going, but add a 30-minute power walk.
In Week 10, maybe you’ll decide aquacize is too easy and trade it in for Spinning or Zumba classes or something else. Also, you decide to power-walk twice a week.
In Week 15 those power walks are turning into jogs.
In Week 20 you decide to hire a personal trainer to check out weightlifting and start adding two 45-minute training sessions a week.
In Week 25 those jogs have become runs and you’ve registered for a 5K race. Maybe even a 10K.
And one day, you do a half-marathon and then maybe a marathon, and so on.
Get the idea?
“It takes a while to get good at a sport,” Olympic champion kayaker Adam Van Koeverden told me. “To be good at anything just requires a ton of practice. I’ve paddled a kayak over 80,000 kilometers in my life, and that’s why I’m good at it.”
He’s an Olympian, which means he’s an outlier, but know that gaining competence in any activity is going to take time. Lifting weights is more complex than lifting heavy things up and putting them back down again. Running takes time to master. Not everyone is a born swimmer. Yoga takes … I don’t have a clue what it takes to get good at yoga. A lot of classes, I’ll bet.
It’s what you do in the short term that makes the difference long term. Focus on the process, and the outcome takes care of itself.
One way to make sure you both create and follow through on your process goals is to take your chosen physical activities and create a monthly calendar of what you’re going to do and stick it on the fridge. Then I want you to relish trying your best to tick every single one of those scheduled exercise sessions off as “Done.”
The reason I want you to do this is that “when, where and how” details boost adherence.
“When you have a strong commitment to a desired outcome [i.e., a goal] this has some effect on the rate of goal attainment,” Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University, told me. “But when in addition you spell out the ‘when, where and how’ of goal striving in terms of if-then plans, you get a much stronger rate of goal attainment. It’s about twice as high.” (More on “if-then” plans later in this chapter.)
And it’s not the quantity of detail you spell out in your plans, Gollwitzer says, but the quality of it. It needs to cover how you want to deal with your personal obstacles to achieving your goals. But this doesn’t mean you jump right into fitness like an apocalyptic lemming. Slow and steady is what wins this race.
Who knows, maybe seeing your workout schedule on the fridge will help you make wiser eating decisions when you open that fridge door as well.
At the end of the month, evaluate, make adaptations and come up with a more ambitious schedule. Repeat again and again, until this becomes second nature and you feel that you don’t need the schedule anymore.
Remember that a good and realistic lifestyle overhaul plan has two equal parts: exercise and eating. If you set only exercise-related process goals, you’ll be ignoring a vital component, and your results will suffer. You need to take the same process goal approach with eating as you do with exercise. Luckily, the method is the same: slow and steady.
And don’t get all hung up on doing this right away—for one simple, soul-crushing reason: the diet part is often harder than exercise, so we want you to wait. Sucks, I know, but it’s true. Here’s why:
- Adopting exercise is taking on a good habit, and it’s easier to start something good than it is to quit something bad, like overeating junk.
- Highly palatable food, as you saw in chapter 2, has addictive properties. With junk food you’re working to break a compulsion.
- Remember chapter 1? Junk food is everywhere. It will take a buildup of mental resources via exercise to learn to control yourself around it.
- For exercise, you need to be motivated only for the time you are exercising. I consider myself a hardcore exerciser. I average eight to 10 hours a week, at either moderate or high intensity. That leaves 158 or so hours in the rest of the week when I don’t need to be motivated to work out. Conversely, diet is 24/7. You can be good on your diet for days and then undo it all in an hour of crazed gluttony.
So if you find dietary changes as daunting as most people do, wait for a bit. Get the exercise thing down first. Focus all your initial energies on this, build up your health-specific willpower and FORGET ABOUT LOSING WEIGHT FOR NOW! It’s critical to remember that in the majority of cases, exercise INDIRECTLY causes weight loss by strengthening mental capabilities to focus on healthier, calorie-restricted eating. The amount of calories it burns for most people makes only a small contribution to the caloric deficits necessary to lose weight. I’ll say it again: lean bodies are made in the kitchen.
Exercise will make you stronger and faster and blah, blah, blah—I already told you all this. It will provide you with your “replacement addiction” as well, inhibit your desire for junk food and other things that are bad for you and smarten up your brain so you’re better at following through on a plan. It’s also going to make you start feeling like a healthy person, and when that happens you’ll want to start eating like a healthy person.
So know that the dietary changes have to come, and start making those changes when you’re ready.
Week after week you can add in healthier foods while also removing the garbage ones. It’s important to remember that healthy food is a replacement, not an addition. As we’ve mentioned, unconsciously “crowding out” junk food with healthy choices doesn’t happen. It needs to be a conscious decision.
If you eat only one serving of fruit a day, try for two in Week One. But you need to eat this fruit instead of eating something lousy. Also, if you eat out 10 times a week, Week One could see you cut back to nine times, and so on. You get the idea. Incremental improvements can lead to your desired outcomes.
The Long Road to Success
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” said some wise dude from long ago.
Fine, it was Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu in the sixth century BCE. Google rocks.
Psychologists have observed that it doesn’t matter if it’s one person planning an individual goal, such as getting in shape, or a large team planning to build a railway or the Chunnel; people will consistently underestimate the time, energy and resources it takes to accomplish goals.2 So be patient.
Take your first step, then your second, then a third, and eventually you will travel your thousand miles. Then you can keep right on traveling.
The Science of Motivation
In case you hadn’t noticed, Margaret and I are kind of into the science thing. We like rational theories substantiated via facts. We dig the scientific method.
Let’s put that on hold for a bit. With life-changing events, sometimes you just have to feel it.
I want you to imagine someone who loves to exercise. I want you to imagine this person is you. You went from someone who hated it to someone who finds such great pleasure in physical activity that it comes to define you as a person. I want you to imagine this changing your life so that, years from now, people think of you as a workout warrior.
This is going to be hard. In fact, it may be one of the hardest things you ever do. But you can power through. You can learn to feel the love. You can make exercise and healthy eating a part of who you are.
The Ordinary Miracle
Still waiting for that weight loss miracle? They do happen, but it’s not going to come via something that magically melts fat; it’s more like a spiritual awakening.
Jen Hamel is a mother of two small children in Edmonton. Six years ago she was a smoker, a daily Slurpee drinker and a fast food eater. She was sedentary, unhappy and weighed 205 pounds.
“There was a catalyst,” she told me. “I saw a group photo from a family reunion and finally realized what was happening to me. The next day I saw commercials for Turbo Jam fitness DVDs, and because my kids were babies it made sense to exercise at home.”
Jen bought a DVD. And that led to many more changes in her life.
“It started with exercise, and then I began making small changes in my diet,” she said. “It took me a year to lose 65 pounds.” But it didn’t stop there. “Gradually, over time, I just became a fitness freak.” She’s down to 135 pounds, runs in Spartan races, does half marathons and competes in a women’s strength and fitness challenge called Femsport.
New Jen’s lifestyle became the polar opposite of Old Jen’s lifestyle. She was in the death spiral, and she got into the Virtuous Cycle. And she’s still in it, working as a personal trainer with an eye on her first marathon.
What happened to Jen isn’t an image-of-the-Virgin-Mary-in-a-grilled-cheese-sandwich miracle, but it’s a miracle nonetheless. People can change for the better. Have no faith in the false promises of charlatans and snake oil salesmen. Have faith in yourself.
It happened to Jen. It’s happened to countless others. It can happen to you.
Embracing Exercise Is Not Easy
I know you have doubts.
Most people don’t exercise, and they don’t want to start. It’s harder to move than to not move. There is no time. It’s painful. It makes you smelly. You don’t know what to do. People might make fun of you. You can get hurt. It costs money. None of your friends do it. Your TiVo is full of stuff to watch. There are Internet friends who require your attention.
The exercise lifestyle is not an easy one to embrace. Many try and fail. Granted, I believe the reason they fail is that they approach it with the wrong attitude, the improper motivations and a lack of quality information. In other words, they’ve been listening to the bs spewed by Weight Loss Inc.
As we’ve shown, falling in love with exercise is something that happens. There is no “Secret” to “Law of Attraction” the flab away. No one ever had a pair of calorie-burning underpants change their life. How many owe fit and healthy bodies to a supplement or an ab-toning contraption from an infomercial?
But going from couch potato to workout warrior—and having it change your life—is something that happens every day. There are people who are overweight, inactive and with unhealthy diets who will start exercising, and they will learn not to hate it, then like it and eventually … love it. And then that will change everything else, including the way they eat. Remember all that stuff from chapter 3 about the benefits of exercise and healthy eating? It opens the door to a better life.
One more time. It happens. It can happen to you.
Every day, someone falls in love with his or her soul mate. Every day, someone stands up to a bully. Every day, someone risks her or his life to save another. Every day, a mother makes a child’s awful day all better with just a hug. Every day, someone does the right thing even when the wrong thing was so much easier. Every day, ordinary things happen that appear miraculous. I don’t believe in weight loss miracles, but real-life miracles happen all the time.
Maybe this is the turning point. Maybe this is the end of the yoyo. Maybe the epiphany is on the edge of your consciousness, yearning to burst through.
Maybe you’re due for your real-life miracle.
Okay, I apologize for getting over the top with all that cheese. It’s time to science this sucker up again. And by science, I’m not talking about Tony Robbins neuro-cognitive-linguistic-association-programming horse pucky. There are proven theories to back up this power of positive thinking. One of them is called …
The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)
This influential theory was formulated by Icek Ajzen in 1985. Since then, it has been studied and applied by numerous researchers,3 many of whom found it to be a good predictor of who will adopt a new behavior and who won’t.4 So what? Well, if the research says people who think and believe a certain way are more likely to be successful in adopting new behaviors like diet and exercise, maybe you should try to change your thinking and beliefs to something along those lines. It’s just a thought.
Ajzen’s model focuses a lot on intention, stating that most human behavior is goal oriented. Intention is generated by two things: does the subject have a positive or negative attitude about the behavior, and does the subject believe others close to him or her support this change in behavior.5
So here’s the “well, duh” moment: if you have a positive attitude about a new behavior and you believe others think you should engage in this new behavior, it increases your intention of engaging in that behavior. It ain’t rocket surgery.
Next step? Add to your level of intention your “perceived behavioral control,” which is how much control you think you have over your life. Do you believe you can make the necessary rearrangements to your schedule to fit in exercise?6 If you answered no to that question, you need to go back and reread chapter 1 about work-life balance.
TPB is a predictive model. If you score high on all three questions, you’re more likely to engage in the new behavior. This is why it’s important to train your brain. Incidentally, having a positive attitude and believing you have control over your behaviors have been shown to be the two most important factors, whereas the influence of what you believe others think is less important.7 So if others around you are naysayers, screw those guys.
The “Theory” of Planned Competition
A great way to engage TPB is to register for a race or other competition, because doing so shows you have that “positive attitude” about your ability to follow through. For example, I know a number of people who have kick-started diet and exercise by registering for races and physique competitions.
A profound example is Wes Daniel’s story.
Daniel, a property manager who lives in California, lost his partner to HIV/AIDS and cancer in 2004, and Daniel’s doctor told him he was dying too—from obesity. “At 40 years old and 275 pounds, I was on a path to an early death,” Daniel said. “My doctor kept telling me to change my lifestyle, and I had tried different exercises and diet plans, but nothing stuck.”
Then Daniel found his exercise passion. “I had heard so many good things about the AIDS LifeCycle experience,” he said. “I started training and lost 65 pounds.” A healthier diet played a role, but the ride was the impetus to change.
The AIDS LifeCycle event is a seven-day, 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. When I spoke to Daniel he was about to do the ride for a second time. Having that long ride on his “to do” list forces him to keep his fitness up during the year.
Another key aspect of a positive attitude is feeling confident and competent in what you’re about to do; it’s called …
Say you walk past a gym and see a Nike sign proclaiming, Just Do It! You walk in, succumb to the high-pressure sales pitch and buy a membership. Then you attempt a workout using your Magnum P.I. shorts from high school with no clue what you’re doing or how to use the equipment. Perhaps you hurt yourself. Also, you find the place is full of arrogant muscle heads with snake and skull tattoos running from knuckles to neck. You hate it and never go back.
That was a bad investment. Putting the self-efficacy theory into practice would have helped prevent this, because it’s all about taking the time to learn about a new behavior and gradually develop confidence to ensure a more positive experience. Although it’s not as catchy as Nike’s slogan, self-efficacy is central to our program of Learn, Prepare, Do. Developed by Albert Bandura, a Stanford University psychologist, in 1977 and published in Psychological Review,8 it’s lauded as the premier theoretical model for sustainable behavior change.
“Planning creates familiarity, predictability and control,” sport psychologist Jim Taylor told me. “All are essential for self-confidence.” And self-confidence is critical to sticking with a fitness regimen.
Self-efficacy dictates you find a gym you like—one that’s convenient and has a crowd and staff you mesh with. You buy some decent gym clothes you feel good in and hire a qualified trainer to show you the ropes. You feel more confident as you learn and progress at the skill of lifting heavy things and putting them back down. As a result, you’re far more likely to stick with it.
Or perhaps you don’t go the gym route at all. Through research, experimentation and learning, you figure out something else that tickles your fitness fancy, like swimming laps, or mall walking, or mountain biking, or whatever. Self-efficacy is about building confidence instead of being a spaz, because confident people have more fun, which intertwines nicely with …
Operant Conditioning / Stimulus-Response
If you ever took an introductory psychology course, you learned about the work of B.F. Skinner. He’s the guy who determined that there are four types of responses that can follow a behavior (the “stimulus”); the response will affect the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future. Those four responses are positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment. For our purposes, let’s focus on positive reinforcement, as it’s the most relevant to fitness.
Positive reinforcement is a pretty basic concept: if you do something and it makes you feel good, you’ll do it again.9 This is why weight loss is such a terrible motivator from a positive reinforcement perspective; the response comes a long time after the stimulus. With exercise, there’s less wait. You can actually enjoy working out, you can like the social aspect of exercising with friends or family, you can have a sense of accomplishment, or just dig the righteous playlist you put together for your walk.
There is, however, an aspect to operant conditioning to watch out for. It’s called “extinction.” Sounds bad, and it is. It means that if you don’t get your expected reward for a long period of time, the behavior designed to get that reward will stop.10
Here’s an example of extinction (and my wife knows all about it, so just settle down):
Years ago, two other guys and I took a once-a-week boxing circuit class at our gym. Michelle, who looked like actress Jeri Ryan (she played Borg babe “7 of 9” on Star Trek: Voyager), always joined our group to make four. She’d hold the focus pads for us to throw punches at and say, “Come on, give it to me. Harder, harder!
I am not making this up.
Needless to say, we never missed a class. That is, until Jeri, I mean Michelle, stopped showing up. We kept going for a few weeks, hoping she’d be there, but eventually our interest in the class waned and we quit. That’s extinction—not getting your expected reward makes you quit. It’s why motivation must also be intrinsic. It must come from within.
It is important to note that operant conditioning does not take into account the role of cognition (thinking) in exercise or diet adherence. Human motivation is more complex than simple stimulus-response.11 An example of this is people who persist in exercising even though they hate it. Such people are rare, but they do exist.
Planning for the “If-Then” Scenario
Life is going to throw you curve balls; it will seem as if more than your share will be thrown with the aim of derailing your new lifestyle. You must plan how you will improvise, adapt and overcome.
“You need strategies that will allow you to create willpower on the spot,” psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer told me. One such strategy is the if-then planning mentioned earlier: “IF situation X is encountered, THEN I will perform behavior Y.” If-then planning can target a temptation to avoid a crisis or spell out how to deal with one.
I have an if-then scenario for running. I always have deadlines looming. There’s always more writing to be done. Sometimes it’s hard to pull away from my damn computer. I hate my computer. My nickname for it is “you stupid @#^$%%*&@%&%!!!”
But “if” I find myself making those “I have so much work to do” excuses to avoid running, “then” I implement this strategy: just get dressed.
I pick out the best running clothes I have, admire their quality for a moment and get my gear on, including those $15 socks that are only comfortable for running. I even put on my expensive running shoes.
It takes just minutes of motivation to get suited up. Then I go back to my computer and do more work. It generally doesn’t take long before I’m out the door.
If-then planning applies to both exercise and food situations. You can imagine dietary sabotage like doughnuts brought to the office, child-care issues with working out, a friend who bails on driving you to Pilates class, an alarm clock that didn’t wake you for your morning run, your favorite elliptical not being available, the indoor cycling class being full, Christmas parties or dinner at an Italian grandmother’s house …
These are all examples of the “ifs” that life can (and will) throw your way. Your job is to strategize a “then” for each and every one. You’ll learn how to handle some of them as you go, and you’ll develop new and better coping mechanisms over years of practice. Some examples: “if” the alarm goes off and instead of getting up to work out I swear like a sailor for a moment and go back the sleep, “then” I will do my workout at lunch. Or, “if” there is no child care available, “then” I will incorporate my kids into my workout. Your plan can be something concrete—how to deal with certain “ifs”—or it can be as simple as engaging in positive self-talk to get through the challenge so your response eventually becomes automatic.
Gollwitzer says it’s important to mentally link instrumental goal-directed responses to these situations. In English: keep your eye on that prized body. “The stronger the link, the stronger the effect,” he told me.
Enough academic psychoanalysis. I think I developed an aneurysm writing all that, so let’s dumb things down.
At the most basic cognitive level, there are three different motivating forces for human behavior: fear, duty and passion. Sometimes people progress through these three in stages, but not always. Also, they’re not all created equal. Let’s start with …
This is the least effective motivator and can only work short term. Think of this: each day you go to the gym you say to yourself, I have to keep working out or I’ll die. Don’t you think that would get old fast? Cardiac rehab programs (you know—people recovering from a heart attack who may die if they don’t change their lifestyle) have low adherence rates for this reason. Still, fear can be useful for getting you started.
“Fear was definitely a motivator to get started because my blood pressure was so high,” Jane Schmidt, a 47-year-old in Saskatchewan with two grown children, told me. “My doctor got serious on me, and I decided this was it. It was definitely done in baby steps.”
And the benefits can kick in fast. Many people will experience a sense of relief that they’re finally doing something about their health; the decision to exercise relieves stress.12
Sean Astin was referred to as “fat hobbit”—with additional lisping pluralization by the creature Gollum—in his role as Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But did you know Astin runs marathons? I met him the day before we ran the L.A. Marathon in 2012—his third time—and he told me about his battles with motivation and weight, and having an ebb and flow of running adherence. Sometimes he needs to hit a bit of a bottom and have that fear kick him into gear again.
“You’re one short run away from feeling like you’re moving in the right direction,” he told me. “Something about the blood moving makes you feel better.” The fear is alleviated because you know you’re doing the right thing.
Duty works well in short and moderate terms. It’s your sense of duty that kicks in when you feel you must be healthy in order to be a capable wife/husband/mother/father (or even employee). You realize you can’t help or look after people if you’re tired, sick or dead, so you pursue fitness to fulfill your duties. Looking at your kids lying asleep in their beds gives you a frequent reminder of these duties, so this motivator works better and longer than fear. In essence, duty can bridge the gap between fear and passion as motivators.
Schmidt’s fear transitioned to a duty … to herself. “I had always put everyone else first and myself last. It’s the mom syndrome. It got to the point where I couldn’t sit on the back burner anymore.” As it turned out, everyone was supportive of her efforts.
I’ve drilled into your head that passion is necessary to succeed. The Lose It Right approach is focused on its development. People who are in great shape don’t see exercise as a means to an end.
“I went from hating exercise to loving it,” Susan Sadler told me. “As a child I had my parents write a letter to my high school to get me out of gym class.” If my parents had gone for it, I’d have tried the same thing. “For me, patience was the key. I just took it one day at a time, making small changes that I was able to sustain.” Now, Sadler is in the best shape of her life.
And though it’s rare, exercise can become such a passion that it leads to significant weight loss all on its own.
“I lost 100 pounds strictly by exercising,” Stacy Lynn Carter, a 37-year-old administrative assistant in Halifax, told me. “I ate crap the whole time I was losing weight.” Exercising hard up to six days a week dropped the pounds, but Carter admits that then she had to change her diet to keep the weight off.
“Exercise is a passion for me now,” she said. “It’s hard to hold me down.”
You’ve got to look at this from a “rest of your life” perspective. When you’re rushing toward some dropping-weight-for-high-school-beach-reunion-vacation goal you lose all perspective about enjoying the journey you’re about to embark upon. Let’s get one thing straight: it’s all about permanent lifestyle change
And if you hate it, it won’t be permanent.
I will repeat this ad nauseam until it sinks in: you must feel the love. You must take this slowly and steadily and focus on enjoying your new lifestyle, embracing every bit of positive reinforcement you can muster to become a health-conscious workout warrior. Once you achieve this, you’ll never want to go back.
Be ambitious. Push your limits slowly, but push them, dammit! See the rest of your life as a series of adventures, a series of quests and physical aspirations. Aspire to live to 100. Aspire to be a fast runner. Aspire to be strong and flexible and agile. Aspire to achieve your genetic potential.
Aspire to be awesome.
- Locke and G. Latham, “The Application of Goal Setting to Sports,” Journal of Sport Psychology 7, no. 3 (September 1985): 205–22.
- Roger Buehler et al., “Exploring the ‘Planning Fallacy’: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67, no. 3 (July 1994): 366–81.
- Armitage and M. Conner, “Efficacy of the Theory of Planned Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review,” British Journal of Social Psychology 40 (December 2001): 471–99.
- ; Zan Gao and Maria Kosma, “Intention as a Mediator of Weight Training Behavior among College Students: An Integrative Framework,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 20 (2008): 363–74; J. Rise et. al., “Predicting the Intention to Quit Smoking and Quitting Behavior: Extending the Theory of Planned Behaviour,” British Journal of Health Psychology 13 (May 2008): 291–310; K. White et al., “Behavioral, Normative and Control Beliefs Underlying Low-Fat Dietary and Regular Physical Activity Behaviors for Adults Diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and/or Cardiovascular Disease,” Psychology, Health and Medicine 12, no. 4 (August 2007): 485–94.
- Icek Ajzen, “From Intentions to Actions: A Theory of Planned Behavior,” in Juliul Kuhl and Jürgen Beckman, eds., Action Control: From Cognition to Behavior (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1985), 12–13.
- , 22–25.
- Curt Lox et al., The Psychology of Exercise: Integrating Theory and Practice (Scottsdale: Holcomb Hathaway, 2006), 61.
- Albert Bandura, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review 84 (March 1977): 191–215.
- F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 65–66, 73; ibid., 75.
- , 70; Lox et al., The Psychology of Exercise, 77–78.
- Skinner, Science and Human Behavior, 70; Lox et al., The Psychology of Exercise, 77–78.
- Lox et al., The Psychology of Exercise, 78–79.