I recently heard a popular media doctor talking on the radio about making dietary and exercise changes to promote optimal health. He gave some sound advice.
“Write down your goals. Think about why you want to lose weight and get more fit.”
So far, so good. But then he added a suggestion which flies in the face of what we psychologists know about behavior change: “Thinking about what you want to avoid is the best way to motivate yourself.” He went on to explain that a family history of diabetes keeps him on the straight and narrow. In other words, he’s motivated by fear.
Maybe this approach works for him ( though given his success, I suspect he’s more disciplined naturally than most of us anyway, so he probably doesn’t need much of a motivational boost). But it’s not the most effective way for most people to stick with a diet or exercise plan.
If scare tactics worked, wouldn’t those gruesome, anti-smoking PSAs impel more smokers to quit? Knowing something isn’t good for us—potentially fatal, even—usually isn’t enough to make us stop.
Thinking about what we want to achieve is much more motivating than envisioning the dire consequences of unhealthy habits. So if you want to get in shape, don’t imagine yourself in ten years, three sizes larger and insulin-dependent. Instead, picture yourself six months from now, crossing the finish line of your first 5K.
If you point yourself in the direction of where you want to go, you’ll get there faster than if you run the other way.
As I promised in my last post about SparkPeople, I’m going to share my reservations about one of their motivational techniques: streaking. I’m not talking about college students or sports fans dashing naked in front of large crowds in public venues. In fitness circles, streaking means exercising every single day.
There’s actually an association for running buffs (as opposed to runners in the buff) called the US National Running Streak Association. It keeps records for the numbers of consecutive days and years its members have run. Former Olympic marathoner Ron Hill, 73, has maintained one of the most famous running streaks in the organization’s history. He hasn’t missed one day of running since 1964. He even jogged a mile the day after he fractured his sternum in a head-on collision, and he kept his streak going while in a plaster cast after bunion surgery by hobbling a mile on crutches every day for six weeks. Granted, he defines running pretty loosely. But, still, his accomplishment is mind-boggling. Most of us average mortals who aren’t made of Olympic material wouldn’t be capable of pulling it off.
Which is why I have my reservations about streaking. You might find it motivating to see the days and weeks add up. But what if you’re derailed by illness, injury, or just plain life and, unlike Ron Hill, end up missing a day or a week of exercise? You might just throw in the towel, especially if you have any perfectionistic tendencies. The concept of a streak lends itself too easily to all-or-nothing thinking.
Instead of aiming for a streak, I recommend shooting for consistency, making sure to allow for occasional lapses. Because life happens.
If you’re like a lot of people I know, finding the perfect system for keeping track of the changes you’re trying to make can get in the way of monitoring your progress. Some of my patients spend weeks researching apps for logging behavior or combing office supply stores for just the right calendar. And guess what? Their quest for the best prevents them from ever actually getting started.
No method will magically transform you. Remember, it’s just a tool. Don’t get bogged down. Just find one and try it.
Say you want to lose weight or get fit. The array of on-line options for tracking nutritional data, creating food plans, measuring exercise, and boosting motivation can be overwhelming. I road tested a few programs. I hated one of them; I can endorse another with only a minor reservation.
The one I hated, which I won’t name but will say is highly popular, requires the purchase of very expensive exercise DVDs and vitamin-enriched smoothies. You can also buy additional measurement tools, such as meal trackers. In fact, every component of the program costs extra. It smacks both of commercialism and evangelism, which bugs me. Plus, the smoothies look and taste like something the dogs would cough up after eating grass. So I returned it all and went back to my research.
I didn’t have to search very hard because several magazines I subscribe to did the work for me. I found one site mentioned frequently. The Great and Powerful Dr. Oz even recommended it! So I signed up.
It’s called SparkPeople.com. You can keep track of fitness and nutritional data online or through a mobile app, and it’s free. You can customize it to set other health- and well-being-related goals, such as sleeping seven or more hours, drinking water, and getting out of bed without hitting the snooze button on your alarm (which I’ve personally been working on).
What I like about it: It encourages you to use solid behavioral principles to set manageable goals. Even very small steps can earn you rewards. You can accrue points and win virtual trophies for reading articles and making positive choices. If you’re competitive, you might be motivated seeing the numbers add up. You can personalize the nutrition tracker and enter foods without specifying calorie counts, an option I’d recommend for those who get overly obsessive. It contains a library of fitness videos—free!—so you can easily add variety to your workouts. And if you need an extra boost, you can join in message boards and group forums tailored to your particular interests, where other members will cheer you on.
Overall, I’d give this site a five-star rating. I have one small criticism, which I’ll share in my next post.
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