The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

You Must Own It – pt. 6

In my previous post, I briefly described the “9 Steps to Ownership.”  In this post, I will be discussing in further detail the first Step.

Step 1 is described as an external source of motivation.  This is something outside of yourself that spurred on an action that you wouldn’t normally take on.  For example, say you were walking/driving by your local gym and saw an extremely low price and because of the low price, you decide to join the gym.  An external source prompted your decision to get to the gym.  Then while purchasing your membership, you received 3 free personal training sessions and you schedule your first work out.  On the day of the appointment, you go to the gym not because you (internally) want to, but because you feel bad about canceling your appointment (an external source).  A few months go by and you haven’t been to the gym since that first workout because you’ve been “busy.”  You start to question why you’re paying this money, if you’re not going to go to the gym (wasted money becomes an external motivator also).  Then you get an invitation for an old friend’s wedding and you realize that you haven’t seen a lot of your old friends in at least 3-4 years.  Since that time, you’ve also gained 30 pounds.  That final source of external motivation finally gets you to the gym.  For a lot of people, this is how they get introduced to a fitness center.

In Self-Determination Theory (SDT) there are 4 levels of external motivation, all placed upon a continuum of autonomy, which basically means a continuum of your power of choice. The one with the lowest level of autonomy (or lowest level of your power of choice) is called External Regulation.  We’ll call this, the “Do it or Else” motivation.

This sort of motivation is similar to people on probation.  Take a specific action and avoid doing certain things and you won’t go to jail.  With working out, this motivation is like when your doctor says work out or you will get diabetes…”Do it or Else.”

This sort of motivation typically leads you to the gym for a little bit, but doesn’t have any staying power.  Once you start to see any results, you lose motivation and go back to your old habits that got you in trouble in the first place.

The second level on the continuum is called introjected motivation.  With introjected motivation, you are either trying to gain someone’s approval or not feel bad.  This is like the example above where you started working out because of your friend’s wedding. Therefore, we’ll call this motivation the “Please don’t call me fat” motivation.  You’re going not because you like working out, but because you don’t want to feel the shame of being overweight.

The goal of losing weight isn’t “Yours.”  You haven’t “Owned” the responsibility of working out but instead don’t want to feel “fat.”  This external motivation is especially strong for women.  And although some women may see some definitive changes in their body, if they stay on this level of motivation, they are much more likely to gain the weight back.

The third level on the continuum is called Identified Regulation.  We’ll call this the “I’m an ‘In Shape’ Person” motivation.  People identify with being “In Shape” and although they may not enjoy the exercise so much, they absolutely can’t see themselves as being in any other sort of shape and therefore work out.

This motivation is not for the feeling of enjoyment that people get from working out, but instead a feeling of competence that accompanies either learning a new skill or keeping up of the skills they have.  This is definitely a stronger motivation for both men and women than the previous two levels of extrinsic motivation, but still isn’t ideal.

The next level and most autonomous of the external sources of motivation in SDT is called Integrated Regulation.  This final external motivational source we’ll call “Working out is smart and I’m smart” motivation.   With Integrated Regulation, the person feels like the decision to work out is completely their own.  They work out because they identify with exercise AND because it also fits into their other values.  For instance, if you think you’re smart and your friends also work out, then you work out with your friends.

Why do you do this?  You do this because “Working out is smart and I’m smart.”  You get to spend time with your friends, which is smart.  You also know that working out is a good defense from a multitude of diseases and adds to a person’s overall quality of life…and is therefore smart.   Finally, you also know that if you want to be able to keep up with your children/grand-children working out will help you on that quest for years to come (and is also smart).

Obviously this last external source of motivation can keep people working out for years or even a lifetime.  Overall, it is a far better reason than the first two sources of external motivation and slightly better than the third.  The individuals in this level will face obstacles to working out, but they have made it a priority and do what it takes to get to the gym on a consistent basis.  You may be asking yourself, “Well, if that’s the case, what else is there?”

The answer is obviously, that you not only work out for the benefits bestowed by exercise, but also because it is inherently enjoyable.

You combine the best parts of the “Working out is smart and I’m Smart” motivation and mix it with the actual enjoyment of the movement itself – for the enjoyment of working out primarily and for the benefits secondly.

If you get to this point, you can say that you have internal motivation.  We’ll call this the “Hell yeah, I’m going to work out” motivation.  This is the strongest motivation for long-term exercise adherence.

Why is that the case?  Think about it.  What happens if your friend moves away and you get hurt working out?  You will start to doubt that working out is so “smart.” Combine those reasons with not actually enjoying how working out makes you feel and you might stop working out if/when your situation changes, no matter how long you’ve actually been working out.

If on the other hand, you truly enjoy working out, and the situation changes, you are more apt to seek it out and stick to it.  Say you did get injured, but loved the feeling of working out.  Most likely you would not only be an active participant in the recovery/rehab process, but will almost definitely be back in the gym as soon as you can.  That’s why this is the “Hell yeah, I’m going to work out” motivation – because you want to be there, no matter what.

The question, is how do you get to that point?  Well, that’s what the other 8 steps are about.

Next week, we’ll talk about step 2, “Social Support” and why it’s so important to help you move through the different phases to “Ownership.”

*I will also be putting up this original post on Wednesday, which was a lot more tedious to read…so if you’re feeling brave, feel inclined to read that one also.

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