In my line of work – as a gym owner – I have been asked at least a thousand times for the “secret” to creating a great body. In truth, there is not necessarily a “secret” formula; but after reading this post, we might all agree that we are coming closer to figuring out the answer.
If you follow my posts and/or listen to our podcast, you know that a common theme in my work is that sustainable fat loss happens only through improvements in health, and that purely aesthetic goals can make success very difficult. Today I would like to give you a little more insight into the minds of the people who make full body overhauls look easy. Once again it’s all about perspective. These people aren’t genetically superior to the rest of us. They simply have more powerful motivators than most. Their goals are supercharged by passion instead of inhibited by desperation or halted by self destructive behavior. These things are choices, not character traits, and there is no reason why anyone should be exempt from changing their perspective to something more healthy and productive. Allow me to explain.
Think of everyone you have ever met, seen, or heard of who was a fit and healthy example of paleo lifestyle success. They may come from different walks of life, they may range from young to old, and they may have various levels of physical capacity depending on their goals, but they all have one thing in common – they look and feel great. Most are generally happy people, too. But there is one more thing they all have in common that is absolutely essential – they all love the process. They enjoy eating paleo foods, they enjoy exercising in a way their bodies understand, and the way they live their lives clearly demonstrates their respect for their bodies. Eating right and exercising are not things they do as chores. These people revel in every step of the journey. Healthy food is a gift and exercise is therapy.
Let’s compare this mindset to that of the other extreme – people with purely aesthetic goals and no consideration at all for anything but escaping a body they hate (please understand that there is plenty of gray area between these two examples and I am not claiming that everyone falls in only two categories). These people just want to change the way they look because they are convinced that a change in appearance will come with more approval from others and less self loathing. Eating healthy paleo food is something that is done in order to “earn” cheats (also called moral licensing) because it is not enjoyable to them. Negative emotions are often answered with highly palatable junk food as they eat to try to feel better. Exercise is forced, often skipped whenever they have a bad day, and they regularly cut workouts short or struggle with adequate intensity as they go through the motions. These people also change their plan a lot, usually after far too little time has passed to elicit any real change, because their desperation to escape the body they so despise makes them impatient. After all, if you hate every step of the journey, there will be no celebrating with each little success and it will be difficult to stay the course. “I feel great and my psoriasis cleared up, but I don’t care because my butt is still too big!” Nothing short of major change is considered a win. Unfortunately, you can’t fix a body you hate, so success is temporary and goes largely unnoticed.
When you look at those two examples, it should be crystal clear that one of these perspectives is miserable. But here’s the rub: all of these people are doing, or at least attempting to do, the same things. The only glaring difference is why. I know this sounds like a load of “it’s all in your mind” self-help guru bull doodie to some of you, but there is real, measurable psychology behind it. A paper titled Motivational Predictors of Weight Loss and Weight-Loss Maintenance (full text here) explores this subject in more detail. Researchers speculated:
“…successful weight loss and long term maintenance would not result from dieting if the reasons for dieting were controlling (e.g., because your spouse insisted, or because you would feel guilty if you didn’t)… Instead, successful, maintained weight reduction is theorized to result from people’s dieting because they personally value weight loss and its health benefits.”
And that is exactly what they found.
“In conclusion, the results indicate that patients’ autonomous motivation to participate in a weight-loss program is positively related to their staying in the program, losing weight during the program and, perhaps most important, maintaining their lowered weights.”
In other words, those who do it because they love it tend to find success.
All of this stuff boils down to something called Self Determination Theory (SDT). When I first began learning about SDT, I felt like all the patterns I had seen in my clients over the years had suddenly been scientifically categorized. Over the last couple of months I have had the pleasure of learning from the amazing positive psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener (check him out on Amazon here, and on his site here). He has helped me find a deeper understanding of a great many aspects of the fitness and nutrition game, especially motivation and change. The intrinsic vs. extrinsic concepts explained by SDT are at the heart of my epiphanies. According to SDT, there are 5 basic categories of motivation. Here they are in order from most inhibiting to most beneficial for fitness/health/fat loss goals (or virtually any goal, I imagine):
Amotivation – Not motivated. Not trying to get fit and helathy.
Extrinsic Motivation – A completely external source of motivation drives you. For example, your significant other tells you he/she will leave you if you don’t lose weight. Your goal is not at all autonomous and you would not even have this goal if it were up to you. This is largely a prescription for failure when it comes to fitness and health goals.
Introjected Motivation – This is where nearly everyone with purely aesthetic goals falls. This type of motivation is the self imposed misery we find in those who believe they need to change the way they look in order to improve their lives somehow. Robert described it best when he said, “It’s like that little devil on your shoulder telling you what to do.” In this case, your devil is telling you you are ugly and fat and people don’t like you. You don’t have anything tangible to base any of this on, nobody is actually telling you any of these things, but you have convinced yourself that changing the way you look is the only thing that will finally make you happy. Therefore, you have no love for the process. The only reason you take action at all is because you are desperate to escape an imaginary external pressure. Unfortunately, this is where the majority reside (in my experience), and this is why major change remains so elusive to so many people.
Identified Motivation – This is the type of motivation you have for brushing your teeth or changing your baby’s diaper. You don’t really love doing these things, but you would never not do them. Your reasons are internal, you act because you personally value the result, and you accomplish what you set out to do. This type of motivation can absolutely get you fit and healthy, but you probably won’t be cheering with every step.
Intrinsic Motivation – The ideal situation. Intrinsic motivation is why we have hobbies. For example, you have probably never assembled a puzzle because your were forced to do it or because you thought it might improve your social status. If you are intrinsically motivated, you can be described by our example above. You are the person who loves health and fitness for completely internal reasons. You would do all of this stuff alone on a desert island because no shred of your motivation is based on what anyone else thinks or any other external factor. I have never seen intrinsically motivated clients find anything but easy, unobstructed paths to their goals. And make no mistake, these people end up with bodies that look great, too.
I believe I can safely call intrinsic motivation the secret to successfully changing your lifestyle with ease, but identified motivation can get you there, too. I offer multiple detailed examples in The Paleo Coach, but while you wait for March 5, you can revisit the examples I have already given you on this blog (here, here, here, and here).
Are you tired of struggling? Maybe it’s time to look at the big picture. Maybe the problem is not that you haven’t tweaked the knobs and dials just right to finally get the results you want – maybe the problem is in your perspective. Why do you want this? That question deserves a detailed, heartfelt answer – one that isn’t grounded in desperation and self abuse. You owe it to yourself to try to internalize your motivation. If you are solely driven by your unsubstantiated (or even substantiated) perception of how the world is judging you, you will probably always struggle. But if you come to the realization that you are valuable, you will see that your health, your vitality, your mood, your ability to participate in life, and your longevity are all much bigger reasons for change than the size of your jeans. That realization will set you free.
Go forth and be awesome.