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By Tasha McRae
I am an exercise physiologist by training. I spent four years of university studying the effects of exercise on the human body. I then spent another year volunteering in a hospital-based cardiac rehabilitation program learning how to use exercise to treat chronic disease. I know without a doubt that exercising is one of the most important things I can do to keep my body healthy. So why is it that even I find it hard to get motivated to exercise?
Maya Angelou said “when you know better, you do better” but somehow that doesn’t always ring true when it comes to our health. The simple fact is ‘knowing’ does not make ‘doing’ easier. Ask anyone who has ever smoked. A smoker knows that smoking isn’t good for their health but that knowledge is not always enough to push them to successfully quit. Just as knowing that the donut isn’t good for us doesn’t mean we aren’t going to eat it.
Throughout my career, I have become absolutely fascinated by behavior change. I am likely interested not only so that I can support the clients I work with, but also to help myself. How can we get motivated to create the changes that we know would be beneficial for us? Let me share with you what I have learned so far.
When most of us talk about motivation, we are referring to a feeling of inspiration that makes us WANT to do something. Something that makes it easier to do things we currently find difficult. There is a sense that finding the right motivation will magically transform us. So off we go looking for the source of this motivation be it a new workout trend, another diet or a supplement solution. Our hope is that we will find something that makes it easier to make the “right” choices. But time and time again, we find this type of motivation to be fleeting. We may find it helpful to get us started but we need something stronger to keep going. Something that will give us the grit and staying power to create new routines and sustain healthy habits.
What I have learned is that it is far easier for us to stay ‘motivated’ when we have clearly identified how making this change affects who we are and how we contribute to the world around us. The behavior we are trying to change is then wrapped up in our identity which is far more motivating than a simple outcome. Let me give you a few examples.
How many women do you know who have quit smoking when they learned they are pregnant? Quitting smoking is hard but the identity of being a mother and knowing that another being is counting on you to choose better can be enough for many women to quit cold turkey. Is it difficult? Of course, but they have a greater purpose to quit.
I worked with a gentleman who decided he wanted to lose weight after seeing a picture of himself holding his young son. He realized to be the vibrant, active father he wanted to be that it would be in his best interest to start taking better care of his health which involved exercising and eating better. Was it challenging to exercise after his son went to sleep and start bringing lunch to work rather than eating out? Sure, but because his health goals were attached to his greater identity and the vision he had for his life, the sacrifices were worth it. They were a labor of love.
I will also share an example from my own life. I don’t love to run. I am not a natural runner (which I define as those people you see outside running in the rain on a Sunday morning). I am the person who drives by those people and says to myself “why are you doing that?” But I know that running is good exercise. It’s relatively cheap and you can do it anywhere. So when a few friends invited me to train for a half marathon I said yes. Perhaps running with them would motivate me. Then I inconsistently ran, mostly when the weather was just right and my energy was just so, which is a terrible way to train for anything. I knew better. I had a solid plan to follow, I just wasn’t motivated. I ended up quitting and telling my friends I had too much on my plate. Fast forward 2 years later, just as much stuff on my plate if not more, and a group of members at LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic decided to participate in a marathon in Honolulu. At the time, I was the Clinic Director at one of our clinics and was invited as a support person. This is when things changed. You see I identify with being a hardworking, dependable employee. I am passionate about helping my members, so I started training. I ran in the rain and snow. I ran because people would be depending on me to support them and I would not let them down. That is important to me. It is who I see myself as, who I identify with and therefore, it motivated me. Running for the sake of finishing a race with friends wasn’t that important to me. Running for the sake of being a support to my members was something I wanted to do. Was it easy? No, but I was motivated by my purpose, not the finish line.
So if you want to find the secret to eating well or being active start looking inside yourself. Investigate who you want to be and how you want to live. Your health is the foundation of a great life. Your health allows you to go out and live your life to the fullest, whatever that looks like for you. If you can connect your healthy habits to a purpose beyond losing weight and getting fit you will find the secret to getting and staying truly motivated.
In our program, we lead all of our members through a Healthy Life Vision exercise to help them mine for this authentic motivation. The kind of true motivation that sees you through the tough times when you would rather not do what you know you should. The Health Vision is an important step in the SPARKS METHOD, the five-step framework that we created for creating healthy lifestyle changes that won’t fizzle out. We encourage you to think about your health vision. Why is being healthy important to you, your life and your relationships? Who do you want to be in this life of yours and how is your health an instrument to get you there? That’s where your true motivation lies.