Science says when it comes to sticking to a workout program, we have been doing it all wrong!
As a coach, one of my biggest challenges—along with getting clients to change their diet—is getting them to remain consistent with their fitness.
I, as many others, have often assumed it largely comes down to two things: Willpower and motivation.
But according to science, we have been thinking about these two things the wrong way!
People are always searching for more willpower, or searching for ways to build more willpower, the same way they try to build muscular strength.
We assume that those who possess a lot of self-control and willpower are able to say no to temptations more easily than the rest of us, but according to a series of German studies, it might just be that these people are better at avoiding temptations than they are at resisting them.
In fact, these studies (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/per.1899) showed that people who proved to score well in the area of self-control actually did worse at tasks that tested their willpower. Instead, the researchers found they simply tended to avoid situations where they might be tempted—so they experience temptation less often.
Thus, it’s less about willpower and more about avoidance strategies!
Think alcohol: If someone is choosing not to drink, it makes sense that they might have more success by avoiding heading down to the local bar, where they know booze will be present, than stopping themselves in the moment a drink is in front of their nose.
Or think about what happens when you have chocolate in the house: You probably eat it. But if you remove the chocolate, chances are you’ll probably be able to stop yourself from going on a late-night chocolate run more easily than you would refrain from walking 10 steps to the pantry to the ever-present chocolate stash.
Of course, some temptations are unavoidable. If you’re a food addict, it’s going to be tough to avoid food altogether, as your body needs food every single day…
The point is, it might be worth it to stop hoping and wishing and putting pressure on yourself to build more self-control and willpower, and instead focus on avoiding situations that will lead you to give in to a temptation.
What situations are you getting caught up in that stop you from going to the gym? Netflix? Going for after-work drinks? Think about what things in your life you could try to avoid that are preventing you from sticking with your commitment to fitness.
I have always thought one of my jobs as a coach has been to motivate my clients. Often this has led to things like nutrition challenges, where we offer prizes to the winners. Again, science says this doesn’t lead to long-term commitment.
A series of Canadian studies https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276849923_Saying_No_to_Temptation_Want-to_Motivation_Improves_Self-Regulation_by_Reducing_Temptation_Rather_Than_by_Increasing_Self-Control) says that external motivators don’t work as well as internal ones. In other words, people need to find their own inner goals—things that light a fire in their hearts—as opposed to having an external goal placed on them, such as a nutrition challenge or their spouse giving them an ultimatum that they must get fit or else…
Figuring out what you want and WHY is harder than it might seem. But when you really dig deep and figure out your WHY, clarity ensues and it’s usually instantly easier for your actions to line up with your goals.
On the other side of the fence, when you don’t understand your why, chances are your beliefs and your actions will become inconsistent with one and other. When this happens, you tend to feel pretty uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of feeling guilt and shame because your actions aren’t living up to what you think you want, and you can’t figure out a solution. There’s actually even a name for this: It’s called cognitive dissonance, or the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes relating to behavioural decisions.
I truly believe this is critical to success in terms of sticking to a fitness program. And I also believe that we should be constantly assessing our WHY because it changes from year-to-year.
When you understand what you truly want and why, it becomes instantly easier to make the appropriate decisions, such as eating well and going to the gym, to help you achieve that thing that lights you up inside. There’s certainly a reason so many brides lose weight in the months leading up to their wedding!
If you don’t yet know your WHY, that’s OK. Take some time to really reflect about what you want, or talk to your coach. Sometimes rambling aloud helps bring clarity.
Getting you to stick around and commit for years to come, hopefully even for life, is my ultimate goal as a coach. One thing I have learned through the years that it’s not about creating the best program in the city: It’s about getting you to build healthy habits and routines so it becomes second nature to you. Anything we can do to help you on your journey, let us know.