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Applying the Science of Motivation

Almost everyone you talk to these days is concerned about their health and wants to look and feel better. However, despite our best efforts, the wellness community has not been able to inspire the sedentary masses to embrace a healthier lifestyle. The problem is not so much that people don’t want to work out. It’s more that they are daunted by the serious challenge of actually starting and maintaining a program. Now, more than ever, we need to know how to keep people motivated so they can overcome obstacles and reap the health benefits of mind-body programs.

Understanding Motivation
Many wellness professionals are familiar with the terms intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As the term implies, intrinsic motivation comes from within; it is internally derived without a specific environmental source. In practical terms, intrinsic motivation causes people to engage in an activity, such as exercise, for the sheer sense of pleasure or satisfaction they get from the activity itself. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is derived from direct environmental input or is socially mediated in some way. For example, people may be extrinsically motivated to exercise by the praise and support they get from family members or a physician.

Many people start a new behavior for extrinsic reasons, such as wanting to look better. However, a program undertaken solely to improve one’s appearance is not likely to be sustained in the long run. It is doomed to fail because extrinsic motivation is usually insufficient to get people over the hurdles of being too busy or tired to make it to the gym every day. The key to long-term (and even short-term) success lies in developing sources of motivation.

The Motivation for Physical Activity Measure (Frederick & Ryan) is a 30-item, self-reported questionnaire designed to assess motives for participation in sport, exercise and physical activity. Appearance and competence are two of the motivational factors listed on the questionnaire. Use responses to identify primary personal motivators and create practical strategies.

Using the Appearance Motivator

Many people are motivated to exercise at least in part because they want to improve their appearance. Although this may not be the best reason to exercise, it isn’t a harmful motive as long as it is not the sole reason and is balanced with other sources of motivation. And although appearance is usually not a motivator that we need to bolster in our clients, we can take the following steps to help them alter their role models:

Change the Images Clients Compare Themselves With.
Encourage a wider range of acceptable body types and healthy shapes. For example, suggest that clients look to female athletes–instead of swimsuit models–as their role models.

Eliminate All “Beauty” Images From Your Facility.
Replace fashion magazines and “beefcake” posters in your lobby and dressing rooms with photos of strong, athletic and interesting-looking people of all ages (this applies to images of women and men!).

Be Cautious With Your Motivational Language and Cues. Emphasize fitness and competence (“Look at how many more roll-ups you are able to do now”) instead of aesthetics (“Your stomach is so much flatter now”).

Expand Your Clients’ Motivators.
Educate clients about the many benefits of movement, such as improved overall health and increased enjoyment. (“It’s fine that you want to lose weight, but this yoga routine will also enable you to better manage your stress.”) Find activities that are interesting and give clients a sense of accomplishment.

The Competence Motivator
People like to be good at what they do. Feeling skilled or accomplished is an important human need. Conversely, people tend to avoid activities in which they lack confidence; this is especially true for new exercisers. Experienced exercisers get a rush from their accomplishments; they are also likely to try new things as a result of their past success in meeting their goals. Because novice exercisers have no history of accomplishments to draw on, it is essential to create an environment that is comfortable and accessible. Here are some ways you can do that:

Recommend Activities That People Can Develop Some Competence In Quickly.
It is critical that new exercisers feel somewhat competent in a class or program by the end of their first week. Without some sense of accomplishment, the chances of their coming back a second week decrease. So take advantage of this initial window of time by exposing them to simple activities and explaining the specific actions they should attempt. For example, recommend two classes that you think would interest them, based on their experience and personal goals. Accomplishing customized personal goals can create a sense of intrinsic value and help sustain motivation.

Care for New People, and Show That You Do!
Walking into a new place and beginning an unfamiliar program can be very intimidating for new clients. It is your job to cushion their doubts and insecurities and foster confidence.

Verbally Compliment Clients and Point Out Areas of Improvement.
Ask them to track their own changes, as well. Use language such as, “Do you feel more flexible now?” or “Look how much better your balance is!” By showing clients that you value small changes, they will start to notice these on their own and they’ll be hooked!

Create a User-Friendly Environment.
Make it as easy as possible for clients to learn. By helping people learn the basics quickly and easily, you allow them to feel a degree of comfort right away. For some new people, a group setting is the optimal choice since they respond best when an instructor guides them through every step of the workout; most of these people will see an improvement by their third class as the moves become more familiar. However, others may find the group environment intimidating. For these people, you may want to design a class for novices or offer duet or group sessions; if so, make sure you feature moves that can be learned quickly and easily.

Frederick, C.M., & Ryan, R.M. 1993. Differences in motivation for sport and exercise and their relations with participation and mental health. Journal of Sport Behavior, 16, 124-46.


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