The Myth of Motivation in Health and Fitness

Something grabbed my attention while perusing the paper recently.  Behold! Another new fitness app! While the app is a clever idea, something the founder said rubbed me the wrong way.

(Big surprise, right? When is anything EVER rubbing me the right way?)

In so many words, he says that he created the app because he felt people need more motivation to get fit. While this statement seems pretty standard and harmless, the underlying assumptions behind these words are wrong and detrimental.

(Note: For clarity’s sake, this piece is not criticizing the app or even the quoted founder, but rather the widely-held notion that the reason behind the obesity epidemic is a lack of motivation.)

The Problem: “People who are out of Shape just need Motivation.”

This is the problem, the perpetuation of what I will refer to as bro-tivation. Bro-tivation is the commonly-held notion that motivation is the foundation for success in fitness related endeavors.

How many people start on a flashy new diet after becoming engulfed with motivation, only to fail and wait until the next flashy diet lights a fire under their ass? These people are extremely motivated, yet remain unsuccessful in the long run.

Conversely, the most successful individuals make progress even when they are unmotivated. If they keep moving forward in spite of a lack of motivation, there must be some other catalyst for their success.

But, whatever could it be?!

Why Bro-tivation is Dumb.

First off, when have any of those inspirational posters EVER worked?

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Motivation, in the general sense, is temporary – a fleeting moment of willful determination. Use motivation to get started, sure, but this level of jazziness cannot be sustained. Motivation is the shot of caffeine to get your day going, so it is important, but it isn’t the biggest component in terms of long term progress.

You can be motivated as any Olympian, and superficially change your behaviors, but if the root mechanism behind your behaviors has not changed, then you will fail once the motivation inevitably withers away.

What to Rely on Instead of Motivation. (Spoiler: Habits, Consistency, Small Realistic Changes.)

We all have ruts.

No matter how immersed you are in the world of fitness and health, there are times when you don’t want to train or eat well. The trick is to solidify healthy habits so that a rut is only a minor setback.

To develop healthier habits, make small manageable changes to your diet/lifestyle. Once a change feels easy to the point of being automatic, make another change. Do not strive for perfection, or even results initially, but rather for improvement. These changes need to be small, consistent, and most importantly, easy enough to do in the absence of motivation. This method builds stability and a strong base to fall back on when the suck that is life rears its ugly mug.

Life is cyclical – you can always count on the ups and downs. Relying on motivation to fuel your efforts will make these fluctuations much larger; some call this yoyoing. Rapidly oscillating between “good” and “bad,” “on” and “off,” or “healthy” and “unhealthy” prevents overall progress. One step forward, two steps back.

A good fitness strategy builds a stable foundation to minimize these fluctuations so that they are not so dramatic. The goal is to fluctuate from “pretty good” (or “good enough) to “decent,” or somewhere in between. Extremes are not sustainable.

Creating stability ensures that, overall, you are still making progress in the midst of a funk and that you will have long term success in your fitness endeavors.

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