What is Intrinsic Motivation?

intrinsic-motivation-and-extrinsic-motivation

The first thing that sends many people to the gym is feelings of insecurity. Whether the goal is to get bigger or to get smaller, something is telling us that we’re not good enough as we are and only by changing ourselves can we become better.

In general, this characterizes extrinsic motivation, or motivation that starts outside of ourselves, like with a friend or family-member’s comment, a billboard or other advertisement, or the physical appearance of an admired public figure.

There is nothing wrong with this thought process on the face of it. It happens to be true that improvement is a form of change; therefore, it can only come with change, just as a fear can only be overcome by facing it, whether in increments or all at once.

The question is, then, how to maintain the improvement so that it becomes a part of you: the gym habit, the healthier diet, the better overall outlook. Most of us have experienced this firsthand; no matter how much we know we SHOULD do a thing, we watch ourselves not doing it, from time to time and then, regrettably, for indefinite periods.

It is a distressing feeling, but the emotional burden can be ameliorated with another feeling, one that should always accompany it: acceptance.

To me, acceptance is more than just the act of acknowledging something. It also involves the ability to move on from that thing, to move forward towards a goal.

In the context of deviating from an exercise habit, then, acceptance is acknowledging that you slipped up on your original plan, but also deciding that you’re going to continue towards the goal for which the plan was conceived, or at least a version of it, regardless of this shortcoming.

In other words, you learn about yourself from it and use that information as a reason to move forward, and this time more wisely, rather than as an excuse to give up.

Perhaps, in analyzing the source of the slip-up, you realize that your original goal and plan were unrealistic or poorly conceived. Perhaps they were created for someone else with different goals, or at a different level of knowledge. Perhaps too many other things in your life were in flux for you to readily sustain a big life change, and some of those things need to be at least partially dealt with first.

In any event, some modification is required, and part of your acceptance—part of your moving on from this setback—is deciding to make the necessary modifications.

After enough trials-and-error, you reach a happy medium; you find what works for you in terms of effectiveness, enjoyment, safety, and manageability. You start to reap the benefits of the improvement upon which you originally embarked.

And how? How did you do it? By accepting yourself, accepting that you make mistakes, that you take missteps, but deciding you are worth improving upon, and not giving up on. This feeling forms the basis of your future improvements.

In the future, you may have to struggle to hold onto that feeling when you fail again, which you probably will; any worthwhile endeavor brings with it the possibility of failure. But there is now a foundation of self-esteem upon which to base your decision to carry on and improve even more.

No more, or at least less and less, must that decision to improve originate in insecurity. It will originate in the knowledge that you overcame one challenge—your own fear and insecurity—and you can overcome another. And another. And another.

This forms the basis of true intrinsic motivation, or motivation that starts from within: the love of being challenged, and the firsthand knowledge of its rewards. Of course, there are also the obvious health and well-being benefits associated with exercise and good nutrition. To say nothing of endorphin addiction.

But one of the greatest benefits—“greatest” in the sense that it can affect your entire life and your attitudes—is the love of a challenge: to become a better person with each passing day, not just in your health but in your actions, in your compassion, in your desire to improve and to help the world improve, to see the rest of the world as deserving of positive feelings, the type that only come with acceptance of who you are and the subsequent overcoming of your fears, starting from within, and working your way outward.

Why Fad Diets Usually Fail

I am sometimes asked why “fad diets” seem to fail so often for so many people, and what a simple diet plan would be.

In my opinion, fad diets—especially low-carb or no-carb type diets—usually fail because they involve trying to normalize extremes, specifically extreme restriction of calories and/or carbs. Being hungry or undercarbed (and as a result with poor energy levels and sometimes depressive feelings) can easily lead to falling off of the diet or outright binging. It takes the pleasure out of life to never feel satisfied after eating, and for every food to signify nothing but a certain number of calories. And who wants to live that way?

Pleasure is, believe it or not, just one principle from which to derive satisfaction in life. It is possible to derive satisfaction from other principles. For example, your food choices can be based on the general principle that your weight loss goals are valuable and worth sticking to, and some specific principles that fit within that. High caloric deprivation can cause feelings of fatigue, irritability, lethargy, and depression, especially when the calorie reduction is implemented all at once (to theoretically provide quicker results) instead of as a slow, gradual decrease in your daily caloric intake. Therefore, any principle upon which your diet is based must be strong enough to offset the displeasure that generally accompanies feeling tired, irritable, incapable, and unhappy.

Your thought process must be closer to “I am lean,” rather than “I should be lean.” Saying “I am lean” is an act of self-definition based on a principle whose validity you also define. Whereas “I should be lean” reflects more of a desire to conform to society’s principles, society’s definitions of what you should be. The more you validate societal principles, the more time, thought, energy, and passion you expend on them, the more you devalue yourself. Think about that for a moment.

What I’m getting at is this: the key to changing a behavior such as diet lies partly in understanding why you’re attempting to latch onto such a principle as “I should be lean.” Is it for your health, for your sense of well-being and happiness, your sense of accomplishment and personal growth based on the knowledge that you’re worth the time, effort, and appropriate level of self-absorption necessary to improve?

Or is it because you feel inferior to thinner, more jacked, or more “healthy-looking” people? Is it because you have failed in achieving fitness in the past, or failed in some other area of your life? Or do you feel defined by some other sense of just not being “good enough”?

Going a little further, does it seem like people go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, and your desire to get fit is a reaction to that? To appease them and shut them up? It’s a rough world and such things are common. But worrying about being super-skinny to please other people generally doesn’t make most people happy, even if they succeed. Indeed, such folks often feel weak, miserable, and irritable, as I mentioned above, and as though everyone is criticizing them, hence the stereotype of the high-strung temperamental dieter. And a lot of them understandably have body image issues. Wouldn’t you?

Most mass-market fad diets play on people’s emotional insecurities and exploit them. The diets themselves are often designed by “doctors” or “nutrition experts”  (some of whom have no nutritional or even medical training) who are only trying to line their own pockets. Now, before any of you hardcore “free market” advocates come at me and say, “well is there anything wrong with wanting to line your own pockets?!” let me point out that not only have such business practices by “nutrition experts” NOT helped to curb the obesity epidemic in America, but anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders have steadily increased as well. So I say, YES THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Whew. Almost went off on a rant there.

That is not to say that these diets don’t have a place. For instance, if you want to lose fat very very quickly, like for a wedding or upcoming beach trip, dramatically cutting carbs can make a big difference. However, such weight loss is generally not sustainable because living life without carbs is a ridiculous and bad idea, and your body knows it. Think of extremely low-carb diets as a specific tool, like a jigsaw or a pair of bolt cutters. They fulfill one specific need very well and aren’t terribly effective beyond that.

“Specific tools” is pretty much how I feel most diet schemes should be viewed. For instance, the technique of intermittent fasting (which I will discuss in detail in a separate article, along with its often-mentioned-in-the-same-breath counterparts, flexible dieting and 6-small-meals-per-day), is effective for some people at making bodyfat “melt” off. It involves utilizing only a relatively small window of time every day in which you get all of your calories and maintaining a fast throughout the rest of the day.

For some people, intermittent fasting, or IF, is a godsend. It is more of an eating schedule than a diet per se, and as such it provides clear guidelines and boundaries that do a lot to simplify the process of calorie control. And as I am nearly always willing to point out, if it works for you, do it.

But for a lot of people, not eating for long stretches of their waking day is not feasible. Some people work very physical jobs and it is not practical for them to start their work in the morning in a fasted state. Even people who work at desks experience trouble focusing while fasting and turn to caffeine or other stimulants to perk them up for the next 6-8 hours. Many people can’t exercise effectively or muster up the motivation to do so when they’re undernourished.

In general, it is unpleasant to be hungry for long periods of time, and I can imagine (I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but bear with me here) that it leads to cheating for a lot of people, if not outright binging. And this failure will have to be recovered from, as will the next one, and the next one….such is the definition of “yo-yo dieting.”

Continuing with IF for a bit longer, that’s why, from what I’ve seen, the people who have the most success with IF are not new to fitness or dieting. They are already engaged in one or more aspects of a fitness lifestyle, and use IF or other tools for a specific purpose, much like a veteran gym-goer who knows how to deadlift but only chooses to do so for a specific purpose, rather than the novice gym-goer who has no idea how and would probably get hurt if he/she tried. Deadlifting, and IF, are not good places to start.

The trick is, we’re trying to develop discipline. It’s hard to develop it if every time you try, you experience physical pain or discomfort. I get it, we need to break free of our comfort zones, et cetera, and that is 100% true. But let’s briefly think in Darwinian terms: imagine placing a gilled sea creature—the distant precursor of the human being—on the sandy shore and yelling “Evolve! EVOLVE NOW! BREAK FREE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!!!” at it. What’s going to happen? It’ll desperately try to get back to the water, and die from lack of oxygen. It took millions of years for those sea creatures to creep up onto the land, and then to breathe air, and then to walk upright. They crept up, and experienced a benefit: safety from much larger sea predators. They learned to breathe air, and another benefit was bestowed: the ability to sleep. Walking upright proved another benefit: reaching for sweet fruits from trees, making fire, and so on.

For successful dieting, it needn’t take millions of years. But it will still take patience, and experiencing particular benefits. You can’t get that from merely dieting. You need holistic health: nutrition AND exercise. That’s all I’m saying.

And now, after that picaresque detour, on to the second part of the question I am often asked: what is is a simple dieting plan that can be adhered to with relative ease?

A simple dieting plan would be to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods in meals, snacks, and desserts, monitoring salt, unhealthy fat, and empty calorie intake, drinking tons of water, and eating enough to match, exceed, or fall short of your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) depending on whether your goal is weight maintenance, gain, or loss, respectively, all while utilizing an exercise regimen based on compound movements, flexibility, joint health, and cardiovascular health, consisting less of a certain number of sets and reps (although this is fine and works for a lot of people) and more of a specific amount of medium-heavy to heavy exercise per week and light-medium to medium exercise per day. Whew. Long sentence.

To identify your TDEE, do an internet search for TDEE/BMR calculator. I don’t want to push a specific on you because a lot of these sites are trying to sell you something. So try a few of them and average the results. But take my advice: never go below your BMR. Your body will go into starvation mode, your metabolism will become sluggish, and your weight loss will stagnate if not reverse itself. Let’s do this right, or not at all.

It is important to find exercises that give you a sense of enjoyment, just as it is important to find nutrient-dense foods that you also enjoy and can serve as staples. In order to lose one pound per week, you must reduce caloric intake by 500 calories. And when it comes to reducing caloric intake, think of it this way: you can reduce caloric intake by eating less, or by exercising more. That’s a liberating concept. The more you exercise, the more (healthy, nutrient-dense) food you can eat. You can be full all the time. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

And then, eventually, when you have a strong grip on portion sizes, you won’t have to count calories. Ever again. Counting calories is just a tool. Just a tool.

Why not shoot for losing 1/2 of a pound per week, and use those 250 “extra” calories you eat each day to fuel some heavy lifting, or high-intensity interval training? And building that muscle, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, will increase your BMR and you’ll become a “fat-burning machine,” all on your own, without any need for super-restrictive diets or ACTUAL machines!!!

When these two things (diet and exercise) go hand in hand, it is much easier to maintain your diet because you are seeing your health holistically. The foods you eat will affect the quality and enjoyability of your exercise, and vice versa. For example, a lethargy-inducing, nutritionally-deficient burger-and-fries meal will make you feel like crap, diminishing your desire to work out the next day. Knowing this and cultivating foresight and discipline may help you avoid eating in such ways.

The positive benefits of diet and exercise complement each other, and screwing up in one area will result in a hiccup in the other. In other words, your actions and behaviors have effects outside of themselves. This is another reason fad diets often fail: when diets don’t connect in some way to exercise or your life in general, you are simply depriving yourself of something for its own sake; it has no gravity outside of itself. Whereas when exercise and nutrition are related and based on your life—instead of some “fitness guru’s” arbitrary or semi-arbitrary pronouncements about what’s healthy—it is easier to commit and see a greater purpose in it, especially when it relates to improving the overall quality of your life and not just some immediate weight loss goal.

I know this article got pretty deep and philosophical, but I hope it has helped you think critically about fad diets and about dieting in general. There are three main points to come away with.

1) The first step to improving yourself is to know that you’re worth improving.

2) Diet and fitness must be viewed holistically, as part of “the whole you.”

3) Improve the whole by improving its parts.

Now go forth and modify!

How To Combat “Workout Burnout” (and not the good kind!)

For many people who leap onto the exercise bandwagon with both feet, working out is often super-fun for the first few weeks, but no matter great it feels, no matter how excited and enthused and eager you consciously feel, within a month, maybe two, old habits of inactivity set in and that beautifully short period in which you were an “exerciser” comes to an end, yet again.

The best way to combat this habit is….GO EASY ON YOURSELF!! Burnout is a part of working out in the same way that you’d get tired of your favorite foods if you ate them everyday. The answer is variety. Find alternative methods of working out and staying active, and if you can’t find one, make it your BEESWAX to ALWAYS just get to the gym and do SOMETHING. Or workout at home and do something. Just do something!

That way, you’ll feel better that you did SOMETHING, even if wasn’t exactly what you’d planned on doing. Along with that, PLAN those alternative methods into your workout routine. If you know or have a good feeling that what you’re doing in the gym will get tiresome in a few weeks, plan in advance to change it up somehow.

For instance, instead of doing the treadmill for one hour (blah), learn about some resistance-training methods, design a little program, and do them instead. Something like this: plank for one minute, do 20 glute bridges, and then do 10 pushups, 20 seated machine rows (or standing dumbbell rows, or elastic rows…), 30 bodyweight squats, high incline treadmill run for 2 minutes, and then plank again for 1 minutes with your abs and glutes clenched. And do this circuit, I don’t know, five times. Maybe reverse it once or twice. Trust me, this WILL git ‘er done.

And there are a million other things you could be doing to get your sweat on: bodyweight progressions, cycling, cross-training, suspension training, sleds, battleropes, medicine balls, landmine training, elastics, interval training, doing 50 burpees just ‘cuz. Research them online and try them out at home if you can or in a private corner of the gym first if you are self-conscious. The key is to at least LOOK like you know what you are doing, while minimizing risk of injury by using good form.

So that’s one thing that causes exercise dropoff: lack of variety.

Another cause that I have seen time and again is stress. Our lives are complex; our health and well-being often take a backseat to other concerns, like our jobs and families. It is this willingness to prioritize a client’s health and well-being that decides if she is “ready” to really make lasting changes in her life. And a lot of the time, she isn’t. But that’s not her fault.

Stress keeps us from going to the gym, a lot. Unless exercise has served you for a long time as a positive outlet for stress (which is usually dependent on it either being a character-building experience for you, or on seeing substantial results from it), it probably won’t serve you as one now. In fact, it may have negative connotations to you, symbolizing bad experiences in gym class when you were younger, or something that everyone ELSE seems to be good at while you “SUCK at it,” or just the pain and discomfort of subjecting your body to hard work.

No; old ways of dealing with stress—video games, Netflix and chill, glass of wine, a few slices of pizza—these will crop up as your stress outlets, because they are more comfortable. They don’t demand that you step OUT of a comfort zone, like exercise seems to do both physically and mentally.

If this is the case, the answer is not to beat yourself up about it. The answer is to try to deal with the root causes of the stress in your life and minimize it so that you can devote that energy to healthy activities. Why is this or that thing in your life constantly disorganized or overdue? Where are areas in which you need more support from the people around you? What are you devoting time to that is actually bad for your health and furthers your stress and sense of disempowerment?Developing positive/creative means of dealing with these sources of stress is part of entering and sustaining a healthy lifestyle, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

But, doing so will help you overcome any negative associations with exercise and cultivate a positive relationship to it, empowering the hell out of you.

As I said, a lot of people aren’t ready to make their health a priority and, in so doing, completely change their lives: maintaining a daily exercise habit in perpetuity, eating both plentifully and healthily, drinking enough water and getting enough sleep, and dealing with stress in beneficial ways, perhaps even learning to love challenges and adversity. Changing your life in this way requires making specific promises to yourself that are, by definition, not easy to live up to. The main promise is that fitness and health must become an absolutely crucial and central part of your lifestyle. There must never be a reasonable excuse to not work out, or eat in a mindless fashion.

But this promise—“I will because I want to, because I should,” or however you’d phrase it—can’t be the only reason you do it. You must learn to derive some enjoyment from it, some pleasure, some feeling of empowerment.

The “one fell swoop” approach to life-changing rarely works for most people. It takes a lifetime to become the person you are now; it may take a part of a lifetime to become the person you want to be. It requires great patience with yourself to see results, and a willingness to see progress in steps, proactively addressing one aspect of your life at a time until the overall picture starts to appear radically and beautifully different. 

We have so many things in our lives to deal with. Before we try to completely change our lives, it would be super to have some of these things taken care of first. So, one step, one brick, one thing at a time. You will have to find a specific medium, one with adequate discipline and rewards to hit your current fitness goals (and you will need goals; having a way to work out without a gym is a good thing too), but with enough flexibility that you can avoid the feeling of constantly failing and all of the debilitating stress and self-castigation that can go with that.

You don’t deserve that. You deserve to feel good about yourself. So when workout burnout peers out from behind the corner of tomorrow, take a deep breath and say, “time to change it up, and think about what’s keeping me from exercising, because whatever it is, I have the power to change it.”