I’m often asked by my online coaching clients how to stay motivated to work out and how not to “fall off the wagon” when it comes healthy eating. Like most of us, they know what they need to do to lose weight and how to get healthier, but fail in the execution of even the most well-thought-out plans. Although having a personal trainer or nutrition coach can help you with the what and how, they can’t help you with the why. That part — which is the hardest part when it comes to being a happy, healthy human — is entirely up to you.
Not only is it up to you, it has to come from within you. From a place buried deep down inside that you might only see glimpses of now and again during shavasana at yoga class. Or when you experience a runner’s high on the trails in the forest. Or when you’re playing with your kids. Or when you’re laugh-crying over beer at the pub with your best friends you’ve known since middle school. Or when you’re watching your dog run full-tilt alongside the ocean at the beach. Or when you’re hugging your parents.
Those experiences. That feeling. That’s the surprise secret to motivation and consistency when it comes to eating right and exercising
(I know that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. But just bear with me here… there is a point, and I will get to it :))
You may have heard about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation factors. This article on the IDEA Health and Association website defines these two terms as follows:
“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.”
I would say about 95 percent of all people are first motivated to exercise by extrinsic factors, especially by the desire to look a certain way to feel accepted and loved.
Humanity is incredible, but that part about our culture is seriously messed up. Looking a certain way may have served a purpose millions of years ago, but now, without natural selection choosing our genes for us, you would think we could see past skin and muscles and fat and bones to the beautiful souls underneath. Of course we all have preferences as to what body types we may be attracted to and take that into consideration when choosing a partner, but I believe it’s less defined than we might think.
There have been numerous studies (referenced here, here and here) conducted where men and women were asked to rate body types of other men/women and of the opposite sex. Almost all men thought women preferred a muscular and fit Brad Pitt/Chris Hemsworth/Bradley Cooper/Jason Mamoa mash-up, and women thought men preferred a Gisele Bündchen/Megan Fox/Jennifer Anniston/Alessandra Ambrosio combination. In reality, the majority of us are not that picky. According to a study conducted by a British men’s clothing store, “72 percent of women in the UK actually prefer men with the ‘boy next door’ look as opposed to luscious hulks.” Yes this study was commissioned by a men’s clothing store wanting to sell clothes to everyday dudes in the UK — but I can tell you right now if both of these dudes approached me in the bar, I would much rather talk to the one on the right. In those few seconds before said luscious hulk approached, I’d be thinking, whoa, I know how much work you have to put in to maintain a physique like that… he must spend a lot of time in the gym and packing around Tupperware containers of chicken and broccoli. Maybe he doesn’t go out to have fun with his friends much. Maybe he cares too much about he looks and is superficial. Maybe he’d rather go to the gym and spend time on himself than spend time with me. Of course, that might not be the case at all. But if ‘boy next door’ approached, the only thing I’d probably be thinking is, this man looks nice and approachable, and wonder what he’s about.
The same goes for us women. We’re way more critical of our bodies than any guy who is worth our time will be. So why does this mindset still perpetuate our culture and act as the number one reason why we want to exercise and eat right? If we were really doing it for ourselves and our own happiness, would we be so critical of our jiggly upper arms and those extra rolls of skin and fat we get around our stomachs when we sit or bend over? Would having only one roll instead of two really make you happier? Yes, the media plays a massive role in our perception of how we need to look in order to feel beautiful and happy — but I know we’re smarter than that on a deeper level. When you can get past all of the external factors you think are pressuring you to look a certain way — when you can get past your ego — what’s left?
I don’t know what could be lying underneath for you, but I can tell you what’s deep inside for me that drives me to get up early almost every morning to go for a run, do Pilates or lift weights, to eat unprocessed nutritious foods about 80 percent of the time, and to generally not care what other people think of my body.
I want to be on this planet for a long time. It’s beautiful here. I love being out on the trails here on this little island in the Pacific Ocean, and the more I run the easier it is for me to travel those trails longer and farther than I ever have before. I want to be able to run and hike for a long time, so I work on my strength and flexibility so I can avoid injury. I also want a family one day — I want to run, jump, play and dance with my future children, and all this exercise will help me keep up with them. I want to travel the world as see amazing things. I will need to be fit to visit some of the places I want to go.
I need to give my body good food so I can fuel these activities and so I can be here for a long time. Heart disease runs in my family, so I have to be careful with the food I eat because I don’t want to have a heart attack and die. It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve learned that healthy food can taste amazing so I eat it more often than foods that aren’t as nutritious. If I’m still hungry, I’ll eat more. If I’m satisfied, I’ll stop. If I want chocolate, I’ll eat some. If I’m out with friends, I’ll have wine. My body tells me when to stop — I just need to pause to listen for those cues now and again. It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve learned to trust it. I know it wants to be here for a long time, too.
It’s taken me about 20 years to get to this point — and I’m definitely not at the finish line yet. I still have plenty of hang ups, but the difference now is I know that critical voice is not me, it’s just my ego and the culture that influences it that is doing the talking.
When my eyes pop open at 4:30 a.m. or 7 a.m. (depending on the day of the week), honest to god the first thoughts that pop into my head are: “Thank you for another day! I’m alive. I can’t wait to go move my body.” I’m actually excited to be awake everyday. I don’t want to be asleep — I want to be awake, eating and moving. Of course there are days when haven’t slept enough and do want some more shut-eye, but most days, much to Matt’s annoyance, I’m awake early and ready to take on the day as soon as the sun comes up.
If you’re thinking to yourself right now, Well, it must be nice to feel like that, but I’m so busy/stressed/frustrated/tired at this point in my life right now that I definitely don’t feel that way when I wake up, or similarly, I’m not a morning person so I could never wake up feeling that way, keep in mind I’m not saying you have to feel this way every morning and get up at 4:30 a.m. like me. If you’re more of a night person, maybe you get excited for life later in the day, and go play hockey at 10 p.m. like Matt does. The key is to listen to your heart and find that thing that gets you excited each day, so that taking the steps to accomplish that goal or participate in something that makes you happy becomes automatic and not a chore.
If knitting tea cozies, playing Dungeons & Dragons or painting ceramics is your true passion, all the more reason to move your body and feed it good food so you can live a long and healthy life. Making time for 30 minutes of movement a day will help reduce the effects that sitting for hours at a time can have on your body. Just think: 30 minutes a day of walking, back strengthening exercises and stretching = many more hours fighting warlocks or slaying dragons (is that what you do in D&D? I don’t even know) on your coffee table with your friends.
So how do I find that thing that gets me excited for life and therefore motivates me to exercise and eat right?
I find the easiest way to uncover your true passion and find your motivation is to spend some time reflecting quietly with a notebook handy. So grab a notebook and pen, sit somewhere peaceful and try this exercise:
- Think back to times you’ve been really happy, excited or grateful. What was going on at that time? Where were you? Who were you with? Write it all down.
- Put on some calming music or download a meditation podcast and sit quietly with your eyes closed or half-closed and reflect on everything you’ve just written down, plus ponder the following questions: What activities make me truly happy right now? What is holding me back from participating in these activities? What is the most important thing to me (could be people, a place, an activity or thing) in my life right now? (Alternatively, you can listen to this guided meditation and ponder the same questions.)
- After spending some time meditating/reflecting quietly, write down everything that came up for you during meditation, stream-of-consciousness style. Just let the words flow and see what comes up for you.
- Pick about three or four “passions” that came up for you during writing and reflection. Write them down in another page on your notebook as headings, and below each write a list of things or actions you need to take in order to maintain or achieve each passion in the long run. So, for example, if you had “time with my family” as a passion, maybe you’d write:
- Eat meals at the dinner table together.
- Do something together that’s active and fun each week.
- Play outside with my kids.
- Then, under each of these actions, list the SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) you need to help you achieve each passion. So your list might look something like this:
- Eat meals at the dinner table together
- Look up a new, healthy recipe online that I can make that doesn’t require a lot of prep work this morning on my bus commute. I’m going to choose something healthy because I want my kids to start to learn to enjoy nutritious food and because I want them to live for a long time on this planet, too.
- Write a list of the ingredients I need to get from the grocery store. Pick them up on my way home from work.
- Prepare the meal at 6 p.m. Perhaps ask my kids to help set the dinner table.
- Eat dinner together at 7 p.m.
- Eat meals at the dinner table together
- Once you have your lists, again spend some time reflecting and see if you can write out a paragraph of your WHYS like I did earlier in the blog post.
(P.S. If you tried this exercise and came up with nothing, or if you generally feel listless, unmotivated, tired, sad or depressed and feel like you can’t face the world in the morning more often than not, please make an appointment to see your doctor or a therapist. Sometimes being unmotivated has nothing to do with finding out your life’s purpose and everything to do with a medical condition. So please seek help if you think you need it.)
Remember: There is no wagon to fall off of. There is just life. And how you choose to spend it — whether that’s feeling guilty for eating an entire bag of chips even though yesterday you had lots of nutritious food and went for a run or feeling happy that you’re alive and living moment to moment — is entirely up to you.
What gets you up in the morning?
How did you discover your why?
What keeps you motivated to exercise and eat right?
Have you tried reflecting and journalling before?
Share your WHY with me if you know it!