“I need to lose a few pounds before this trip.”
“Well, what are you doing now to help with that?” I asked.
“I”m trying to get back into working out,” she said. “I’m just not that motivated to go every day.”
Ah, motivation. The magic juju behind gorgeous, rock hard bodies everywhere.
Or so, you’d think.
There’s a tremendous amount of “strong is the new skinny” and “no excuses” fitness memes running rampant in our social media feeds. The number of skimpy looking fitness models lifting weights with their booty shorts and push-up bras should motivate us mere mortals to action, should it not? After all, if they can look ripped while glistening with baby oil with a barbell in hand, we should too!
If you can’t do it, then maybe you’re not motivated enough!! (<– notice the sarcasm)
If this is your way of thinking, I challenge you to look beyond the Fitspo and join me March 1 for the Women’s Strength Summit (30+ of the best female fitness, nutrition, and mindset pros coming together in an online event! Grab your tickets right here: http://bit.ly/1SRJ501)
Even if that’s not your thinking, there is something to be said about fitness memes, the “no excuses” mantra and what it does to our motivation. The fitness inspos started out with good intentions – motivate people to prioritize their bodies and health. However, it fails to look at motivation for what it really is – a finite supply of magic juju, created by the brain, that ebbs and flows at different times of our lives. At its core, motivation is necessary to train consistently, to compete at a high level, to push ourselves to succeed, to get that promotion and create new habits. Motivation drives us to achieve and accomplish when at times, we’d rather hit cruise control.
Yet when we’re bombarded with messages that scream “no excuses! I am slim and eat healthy 24/7 and you should also!” we start thinking that maybe there is something wrong with us. Perhaps we lack motivation and discipline to follow through.
In talking to my friend who wants to lose a few pounds before a big trip, I realized that it’s not the lack of motivation to workout and eat healthy that most of us lack, it’s the knowledge to formulate these good habits in our lives in the first place. An upcoming cruise might get us to the gym for a month but the lack of knowledge to turn that action into a lifelong habit is what holds us back when motivation dwindles. We need motivation but we can’t rely on it 24/7.
This is your brain on motivation
It turns out that motivation starts in our brains where a bunch of chemicals signal us to do this or that. Dopamine, the infamous neurotransmitter often associated with pleasure (i.e. sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll), has a much bigger effect on us than we realize, influencing memory, behavior and you guessed it, motivation. Researchers looked at this pleasure-inducing chemical and found that dopamine levels spiked during high-stress, and often painful environments, squashing the old belief system that dopamine = strictly pleasure. Dopamine signals the brain to act – either to avoid pain or achieve pleasure – and rewards us with pleasure when we achieve a specific goal.
In the case of exercise, we can fall in one of two camps. One, the camp that feels pleasure during or after exercise and is thus motivated to continue. Two, the camp that finds exercise so dreadfully painful they’d rather swallow broken glass than do a burpee, and feels unmotivated to try again. I’m no scientist, but I’m willing to bet that Joe from camp B can create motivation if he learns how to trigger motivation under the right conditions.
(I’ll preface this with the fact that I am not a researcher or PhD, nor do I claim to be. This theory is mine and mine alone and whatever I say after this is based on my own experiences and observations. Ok let’s go!)
How to set up motivation triggers
By nature, I’m a bit of a go-getter. I love to achieve, I like deadlines and I enjoy learning. I am motivated most of the time but I do suffer from Netflixitis (a disease where all you want to do is watch Netflix and give zero f*&ks about reality). When Netflixits overstays its welcome (usually four seasons in of Sons of Anarchy or when I’ve run out of episodes of Bridezillas to watch) I use this framework to set up my motivation triggers and get my butt in gear:
Step 1: Eliminate distractions immediately. Delete time-sucking apps from my phone, freeze my Netflix account, stop checking email, avoid the chatty co-worker – whatever it is that’s sucking away all of my productivity goes out the door temporarily. We all know what the time suckers are – the activities we do after work that get us a little too cozy and feeling less motivated to do things we want to do including, exercising, having a healthy meal, focusing on that launch.
Step 2: Set incremental, performance-based goals. Using deadlines like a vacation or event to get us motivated to eat well and exercise is a temporary solution to a life-long necessity. Rather than focus on a looming deadline, set up small performance-based goals that excite you to eat better or workout consistently. Years ago, my performance goal was to get one unassisted pull-up. With this goal in mind, I recruited my good friend and coach Mike Anderson to write my strength program for me. That triggered me to show up at the gym 3x a week as early as 5am. The reason a performance-based goal works over aesthetics (i.e. look good) or deadlines (i.e. spring break), is because there is no timeline tied to it and the goal triggered other necessary components needed to reach the goal. I didn’t need a strength coach or a new program – I could that myself. But I did want to master the pull-up and that inspired me to call on a coach, get a program and show up to do work because ultimately that was that path to my first pull-up. This is all about looking at your goals from a different angle. Rather than say “I want to lose weight for my honeymoon” perhaps you can set the goal to “Run 3 miles in under 30 minutes,” or on the nutrition front, “Cook an entire three course meal from scratch for my fiancée.” Learning to cook a meal from scratch forces you to experiment in the kitchen more, try out new recipes, learn to cook healthier options – all of which help you lose weight because now your nutrition is in your hands rather than a restaurant’s.
Step 3: Set up a reward system. If dopamine triggers our motivation levels, why not create pleasure-inducing rewards each time you hit your goal? Using the example above – once you hit that first chin-up you might reward yourself with a spa day. Or when you hit that 3 mile run under 30 minutes you might treat yourself to a new pair of running shoes. The reward system is critical to forming new habits but we often drop the ball here by setting up the wrong rewards. Food, wine or a Gucci bag is not an appropriate reward system. I tell clients and students this all the time “you are not a dog, stop treating yourself with food.” Likewise, a $3k handbag is not a sustainable reward every time you hit a goal (and if it is, can I get one?!). Make the reward as simple or as indulgent as you’d like, just make sure it makes you happy and joyful and isn’t on the “no-no” list.
Step 4: Tap into your support system. Research has shown that our network, or support system, is vital to our success. If we surround ourselves with naysayers, it’s harder to succeed. But when you share your goal with your tribe – be it a coach, supportive friends, or an online community of like-minded people – they are there to check up on you and cheer you on. I often turn to my tribe when I feel that life or business is not going my way. It’s a lot easier these days to find a supportive community online, like the LLF tribe right here or the community we’re building over at the Women’s Strength Summit (grab you free pass here > http://bit.ly/1SRJ501)
Step 5: Get determined. Sometimes the only thing we can do to get motivated and stay motivated is pure perseverance and determination. Even with the right formula and perfect conditions you’re likely to hit an obstacle. Determination is like punching in for work every day. You may simply need to get to the gym, make that healthy meal despite it all. Just remember that this ‘down’ phase is just a phase. It passes! When motivation wanes, get focused and determined!
Step 6: Go outside the box. When we’re motivated by a health goal putting in the work feels easier. But when we feel unmotivated or stagnant (and pure determination is non-existent) I like to take people outside the box. Meaning, outside the usual routine. During a rough period in my life (Read all about it HERE), I was ‘clocking in’ at the gym but I had zero motivation to push myself. I started shopping around for different activities, joining a volleyball team for a few weeks, taking up Olympic Weightlifting and testing out new gyms and classes. Sure, it felt inconsistent at first but I was looking for a fresh bout of excitement when life felt anything but. Olympic weightlifting did it for me, stimulating my mind and body. Soon enough my motivation caught up with my outside-the-box workouts and I fell in love with weightlifting and the community at CrossFit Fortius.