The two primary ingredients of any productive fitness program are knowledge and motivation. Other ingredients - like having access to the right equipment, one’s ability to afford a good diet, and one's genetics - play smaller roles. Finding the right equipment and having access to proper nutrition are actually sub-categories of “knowledge and motivation”. Genetics, on the other hand, is a lottery.
For the moment, let’s assume that most of us can afford to buy the food we need, we can access the necessary equipment, and we have relatively good genetics. When we don’t blame those other factors, we can clearly see that the make-or-break factors are KNOWING what to do, and having the MOTIVATION to do it.
Most fitness programs fall apart in one or both of these categories. I have seen many people who could easily afford to buy the proper food, have access to excellent exercise facilities, and often have enviable genetics, yet they FAIL to significantly improve their level of fitness, because they did not:
1. Use Proper Training Methods, for their given goal (as outlined in my previous article)...and/or they did not...
2. Exercise Frequently enough, Consistently enough, or Intensely enough - due to a lack of motivation.
Motivation is Misunderstood
Motivation is technically NOT the same thing as discipline. In the simplest of terms, motivation is the incentive to do something. It’s a driving force. It compels us to act. Conversely, discipline is the idea of doing the “right thing” despite not wanting to do it. Certainly, there are times when motivation and discipline overlap. But people who reach high levels of success at something - whether in fitness, sports, business, education, etc. - are driven. They WANT to do it. They may even be obsessed with it. This is very different than having someone fighting everyday with a nagging little voice that says, “don’t do the right thing...do the wrong thing instead”. Motivated people are on fire. Discipline - at best - minimizes consequences. Motivation propels people to greatness; discipline breaks bad habits. Discipline is good, but motivation is golden.
How Does Motivation Happen ?
Some people just seem to have it - don’t they? It might make you wonder whether they were born with it, or if they developed it.
Motivation is - at its root - an emotion. However, it’s an emotion that is influenced by logic. It’s a zeal that overcomes us, when we find a situation where the cost - as we view it - is greatly outweighed by the reward. It’s like being offered a Mercedes Benz for the cost of Toyota.
It’s a bit of an over-simplification to say that we tend to gravitate toward the things that we love, or away from things we hate. For example, a person may be compelled to participate in a fitness program because he (or she) HATES being fat. They may be compelled to participate in a fitness program because they LOVE to be fit. Or both, simultaneously. However, most people who fail in their fitness pursuits would say - wholeheartedly - that they “love to be fit” and “hate being fat”. So clearly that’s not the whole story.
The fact is that there’s a cost to everything, and that factors into the equation. So, while someone might hate being fat and love being fit, the cost - in terms of effort and sacrifice - may seem much greater than the reward, to that particular person.
Ultimately, the cost vs. reward system - the way we view it, and how it affects us psychologically - is what compels us to either be motivated, or not.
Magnifying the Value & Decreasing the Cost
In my previous article, I spoke about three physical categories that are influenced by exercise: health, appearance and function. The degree to which we value each of these attributes, plays a role in our level of motivation.
There is also a fourth category which compels us to exercise - fun. I did not mention it in my previous article because it (“Exercise in Futility”) was about selecting the right tool for the job - i.e., using the proper method of exercise for your desired outcome.
“Fun” (enjoyment of movement, exercise, sport, etc.) can certainly influence a person’s health, appearance and function, depending on the kind of activity a person considers enjoyable, but it's not quite the strategic sculpting tool that other forms of exercise are. Of course, there are those who could never fathom of exercise - of any kind - as ever being fun, and their point of view - as unfortunate as it may be - still deserves consideration. They wrestle with the concept of motivation as much, or more, than anyone else. Nevertheless, "fun" is one of the four ways people find the motivation to exercise, and so it bears mentioning here.
There is no denying that we all respond differently to exercise, as well as to diet. Unfortunately, some people get a lesser response than others, given the exact same amount of effort - based on differences in our individual bio-chemistry. This “difference in required effort” factors into the equation, which registers in our brains as “X cost in exchange for Y reward” - on which we then decide, or are compelled, to act. The better we respond to exercise, the more motivated we become.
However, regardless of this difference, we ALL get some response from exercise and diet, and we must value that. Instead of comparing how much of a result you get, as compared to how much of a result “Charlie” or “Sally” get for their effort, we need to focus on how much better off we are, than we would be, if we were not putting in any effort at all, or as much effort.
Of course, it’s important to ensure that your body is working normally - before embarking on your fitness goal. So, if you suspect that you might be under-producing thyroid (for example), or that you might be “insulin-resistant” (i.e., pre-diabetic), or that your hormones are being produced in insufficient amounts, you should have a physician check your levels. If your body is not working optimally, and you toil away at the gym with little progress, it will feel like you’re spinning your wheels in mud, as you push on the accelerator.
Ultimately, don’t be unrealistic about what kind of results you should be getting. We tend to use the genetic elite as our role models, and we expect - and believe we deserve - the same kind of results “they” get from X amount of exercise. Be sensible in your expectations, and you’ll be pleased with the results.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years, in terms of how best to maximize the odds of staying consistent, and advancing toward one’s goal:
1. Consistency and frequency are more important than intensity. You can only make so much progress per workout. So killing it in the gym, is like trying to get a sun tan all in a day - you’ll only burn (or get injured). But more importantly, the body always responds much more favorably to consistent efforts, even if the intensity is moderate.
2. Keep the workout intensity within your emotional tolerance. You don’t want to create a negative association with the concept of exercise. Exercise should always be comfortable - if not enjoyable. That way, you won’t burn out, and you won’t hate exercise. Unfortunately, too often people think that exercise MUST be intense, or there will be no benefit. That simply isn’t true. So why push it, when you don’t have to?
3. When people say they “hate exercise”, it’s only the intensity they hate. There is an intensity level is that comfortable for every person. If you hate the treadmill, for example, ask yourself how you would feel about it if you did it half as long as normal, and at half the speed. You’ll quickly realize that you can easily find a speed and duration that is not worthy of your hate. Don’t do too much, too soon. Let your body get accustomed to low intensity, and then gradually increase it a tiny bit each month.
4. It’s okay to not FEEL like exercising. Do your workout anyway, but just go easy. People often think that there is something wrong with them, if they never feel like exercising. But, just like Pavlov’s dogs, once the body is taught to expect exercise at a certain time of day, you will begin feeling “in the mood” to exercise at that time. Always start your workouts gently - and if you begin to feel like that you want to increase the intensity a little later, than do so. But if you don’t, just stay with the gentle intensity. Eventually, the process will become less and less onerous.
5. Keep your workouts short. How short? As short as you want - but don’t skip it. Ten minutes a day is a good place to start. Later, you can go to 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually, you MAY want to extend it to 30, or 40 - or even 60. But don’t do that just because you feel you should. Do it only if you truly feel that it’s within your physical and emotional comfort zone.
6. Try to designate a particular time of day as your official workout time. Again, just like Pavlov’s dogs, our bodies adapt to habits. If you workout at the same time of day each time, you’re more likely to feel “in the mood”, than if you workout at a different time each day.
7. Don’t compare yourself to others. This is a common mistake. It does not matter what someone else does for their workout. We all have different abilities and tolerances. Stay within your comfort zone. Give yourself credit that you’re doing the workout at all, instead of trying to meet some arbitrary standard. If you push yourself harder, just because you think others are setting the standard that you should meet (or because you’re so competitive that you have to beat the standard), you’ll hate the workout, and/or you’ll get injured.
8. Most “bodyweight” exercise are simply too hard. I’m referring to exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, parallel bar dips...and even abdominal crunches done on the floor (squats are okay). These exercises require that you move much more weight than you would select, if you were doing a similar exercise on a machine. If you can’t do 10 to 20 repetitions comfortably on any exercise, you either shouldn’t be doing it, or you should do a version of that which allows you to use a lesser resistance. Again, don’t think of yourself as a wimp. Do what you can do comfortably, and give yourself praise that you’re exercising (moving your body, within your limits) regularly. That’s what matters.
9. Visualize the improvement. Keep your goal in mind, and imagine yourself getting closer and closer to it. The more clearly you can visualize it, the more excited you’ll feel knowing that you’re moving towards it, and the more consistent you’ll be. When I was 18 years old, I traced over a photograph of myself taken a year earlier, and then I enhanced it - the way I wanted to look. I left certain features alone - like the wrists, the knees, the ankles, the hip bones, the head, etc., because they typically don’t change (they’re part of one’s bone structure). That allowed me to still recognize it was me, but a bigger and better version of me. I then framed it and put in the table where I ate every day, and imagined myself getting closer to that every day.
10. Always start at the beginning, when starting back up. People have a tendency to want to immediately return to the level at which they were when they fell off the wagon. Don’t do it. If you haven’t been exercising for a few weeks - or longer - you’ve lost conditioning (which is probably obvious). Trying to resume where you left off will not only make you feel weak, but you may actually get hurt. It’s vitally important that exercise always be comfortable; use lighter weights and fewer sets. Too much fatigue and too much next-day-soreness will only discourage you from finding that elusive motivation. Start gently, and progress gradually.
11. Find an enjoyable form of exercise. This is a bit tricky, simply because what you might consider fun, might not produce the visible result you want. Games like tennis, basketball, surfing, biking, hiking, etc., certainly work one’s cardiovascular system, and improve one’s health. However, they may not produce the visible results you seek. Nevertheless, if this is the ONLY way you’ll get off the couch, than it’s the way to go.
12. Be patient. “All good things come to those who wait”...“Rome was not built in a day”, etc. Fitness is one of the those delayed gratification things. Progress is gradual, by nature. If you become impatient, you’ll reap very little reward, if any at all. On the other hand, if you’re patient, and you’re consistent, and the frequency with which you exercise is (on average) 3 times per week - you will make progress.
There is no doubt that - to a degree - more is better (i.e., more intensity, longer duration, etc.) - in terms of results. I workout an average of 8 - 9 hours per week, with - sometimes - insane intensity. But I've learned to enjoy it - and you can too. Of course, there are times when I dread exercising (like when I’m in the most strenuous final days of a diet, right before competition) - and this is where discipline is the more apt word.
But in general, I think the key is to strive for motivation, rather than discipline. Strive to enjoy the process, because you allow yourself to do it at an effort level that is comfortable for you. If you can do more next month, that’s great. Progressive efforts are good, when you feel that you can do it comfortably. But we all have good days and bad days, and there is nothing wrong with taking a few steps back (lessening the intensity) on those bad days.
Goals are also helpful. Direction is essential. Knowing what kind of result you want is critical, because it determines your exercise methods. You might have a high school reunion coming up, or maybe a wedding, or a challenge amongst your friends, or a bodybuilding contest - and you want to be your best. But those things will eventually pass, and you’ll have to learn how to find a level of effort that allows you stay consistent on an on-going basis.
Ideally, best results are achieved with more frequency - daily, or almost daily exercise sessions - but keep them short and sweet. You'll make more progress with a daily 20 minute workout, than you will with a two-hour workout once or twice per week. It's also easier, physically and psychologically.
The trick is to manage the intensity so that it’s comfortable, and to always be consistent - try to never skip a workout. Also, try to ensure that you’re using the wisest method of exercise for your particular goal, so that you’re optimizing your progress with the least amount of effort. Soon enough, working out will become a habit, and it will feel much easier as your body adapts to it. Before long, you'll be increasing the intensity without even realizing it, and you'll actually miss the workout, if something prevents you from doing it.
In the end, you'll reap all the benefits that are so valuable - improved health and confidence, better and longer quality of life, reduced body fat, stronger muscles and a better physique. And those are certainly wonderful rewards.
The author - Doug Brignole - in his Pasadena, California gym ("Brignole Fitness") in 1986.