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Your doctor warns your weight could become a serious health concern. Your partner insists you join a gym or start a weight loss program together. You make a deal with yourself to eat healthier so you can impress your friends and family.
Odds are if you’ve had these kinds of thoughts, you’ve been unable to maintain consistent, long-lasting weight loss. Maybe you lost a little when you first started, saw a bit of a change in your physique, and even started to feel more determined about the journey. But after a few good days, you found yourself right back in the same old self-destructive routines. Wait! Wait! What happened?
Hmmm, maybe you just didn’t try hard enough. So, you try again, telling yourself you will succeed this time. Maybe you recruit a support network—people to keep you motivated by consistently reminding you how much they believe in you. You chose a proven exercise routine and meal regimen, start working out, and put one hundred percent of your efforts into eating healthy. Maybe you even get a personal trainer to encourage you, but every day it seems to get harder and harder to push yourself, until, eventually, you find yourself in another slump!
If you are now trying to lose weight, or have tried in the past, it’s likely you can relate to this scenario. As it turns out, the difficulty you’re experiencing may have very little to do with the particular dietary program in which you’re enrolled. More likely it comes down more to the type of motivation that drove you to attempt the weight-conscious change in the first place.
The Two Types of Weight Loss Motivation
There are two major categories of weight loss motivation which produce radically different results: intrinsic vs. extrinsic, or motivation from within vs. motivation from outside yourself.
Extrinsic motivation can kick-start your weight loss in a fast and furious way, but it is much less likely to carry you through to the finish line or to keep you from sliding back. For a more permanent change, you’ll need to muster reasons from within and allow yourself to become a different kind of person with regards to food than you’ve been to this point. Long-lasting weight loss requires at least some identity change.
The good news is, when you understand how this all works it can be a lot easier than you’re probably thinking right now. Also, you should not think that extrinsic motivation is bad. In fact, as you’ll see below, the research suggests you can use outside (extrinsic) motivation as a nitro-boost to get started, provided you also develop intrinsic motivation as you progress on your journey.
Below I summarize the research on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation to better arm you for inevitable rough spots and begin to give you a glimpse of how you can power through.
Individuals who use motivation from outside themselves (extrinsic motivation) generate fast, extreme results in the best-case scenario, but also tend to experience a quick rebound once they feel they’ve come close to their goal, or when their original extrinsic motivation disappears or changes. In other words, extrinsic motivation can kick things into gear but is unlikely to provide the staying power to achieve and maintain goals long-term because it comes from outside yourself. Moreover, the research suggests that extrinsically motivated people seem to develop a continuous cycle of dependency on external motives, losing weight in the short term, only to gain the weight back again and again. Many extreme weight loss plans such as drastic dieting or fasting are extrinsically motivated. So are most “diet betting” programs and those which involve accountability to others, etc.
There are two subtypes of extrinsic motivation: Guilt Avoidance and People Pleasing.
Guilt avoidance is an effort to avoid feeling humiliated that you don’t look like others and/or how society as a whole thinks you should (Durayappah-Harrison, 2015).
People pleasing, on the other hand, is derived more from the desire to win approval.
Two examples from my own life serve to illustrate.
One day when I was a chubby 13-year-old, my dad came over, pinched my stomach, and said “getting fat” in a voice that still echoes in my head to this day. I felt awful, and I’ve always dreaded ever having that feeling again! Then, after I’d started losing weight my mother said “You look so thin and handsome Glenn. You’re doing such a good job, let’s go buy you some nice clothes to show you off.”
The experience with Dad provided extrinsic motivation to avoid feeling humiliated, and the experience with Mom motivated me to people-please and win more of her approval, as well as the external rewards she provided (clothing) when I did. It’s very important to note both events produced extrinsic motivation. Both gave me a nitro-boost in weight-loss motivation. But both also had only a temporary impact since they were both coming from outside myself.
In sharp contrast to extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is made up of internal, meaningful reasons to lose weight such as the idea that both the process and the journey will produce “energizing emotions such as interest, enjoyment, and challenge” (Durayappah-Harrison, 2015).
Whereas extrinsic motivation makes you feel like a slave on an ancient ship rowing hard to avoid being whipped by your master, intrinsic motivation makes you feel like you’re on a grand adventure, excited not just by the destination but by what lies in front of you. You’re eager to learn new skills, forge new weapons against “the monster” (that internal voice which always pipes in to say “we can start eating healthy again tomorrow”), and make new friends to help on the journey.
Intrinsic motivation is much more successful in accomplishing consistent, long-term weight loss because it comes from inside you, not a reliance on outside accountability. Intrinsically motivated individuals look at maintaining their physical health as a continuous lifestyle habit and understand that permanent results take time. They focus more on progress vs. a time-sensitive, designated goal. They allow themselves to enjoy every step of the way, even when the journey becomes arduous.
How do you cultivate and enhance intrinsic motivation? According to self-determination theory, it’s fueled by feelings of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. (Deci & Ryan, 2000). In short, in order to muster enough intrinsic motivation to lose weight permanently, a person must feel confident in their ability to succeed, believe they have independently chosen their dietary rules without too much outside influence, and ideally have a sense of belonging with people who support them in their goal. Taken together, cultivating these three feelings can produce a change in identity that carries you beyond the initial weight loss goal.
Not all types of support are effective, however. The perception of autonomy is a critical part of the pathway to success. Therefore, forms of support that require dependency, accountability, sponsorship, etc. may sometimes do more harm than good by generating a reliance on external motivation. They signal the individual they’re doing it for the approval of an outsider, not themselves. On the other hand, supportive communities that create a sense of belonging, provide cheer-leading for the individual’s own intrinsic goals, and help the individual pick themselves up and keep going when mistakes are made can be of tremendous help!
Dr. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explained the difference to me during a call in which our organizations were trading consultations. He said “Glenn, ‘dependence’ is the state into which we are all born. Dependence says ‘I need you, and I can’t do it without you.’ Independence is the next phase of maturation, wherein people realize ‘I don’t need you; I can do it all by myself.’ But independence is not the ultimate goal; there’s a step above it to which we should all strive: Interdependence. Interdependence says ‘I don’t need you; I could indeed do it without you, but we can accomplish more together than apart.’”
It is this interdependent sense of community and belonging which is helpful in increasing people’s weight loss motivation. Not a sponsor to report into, but a sense that there’s a whole tribe behind you, cheering you on every step of the way. Social fitness sites like Strava or Daily Mile are good examples.
There’s even more good news to report about intrinsic motivation, as it seems to produce a multitude of positive outcomes that go well beyond diet! These include “improvements in mood, physical fitness, and body image” (Teixeira, 2006), all of which, in turn, support long-term weight maintenance.
Plus, intrinsic motivation not only applies to the dietary aspects of weight loss, exercise counts too. If you can become internally motivated to exercise, research suggests you’ll increase the longevity of your weight loss motivation too. (Silva et al., 2010.) In other words, if you can get yourself to enjoy moving, some of that feeling will likely spill over and increase your motivation to stick to your diet too!
Unfortunately, the converse is also true: Feeling incompetent to actually lose weight, perceiving oneself to be trapped into compliance with a diet imposed by others, and feeling isolated from a supportive community of the type described above leads much less frequently to permanent results. It can also produce a reduction in mood, fitness, and self-esteem, as well as a higher likelihood of unhealthy coping behavior. (Georgiadis, Biddle & Stayrou, 2006).
Clearly, before we set out on a weight loss journey it’s critical we (1) choose a dietary style we 100% believe will be sustainable and produce results; (2) be convinced that our diet, starting date, and goal have been chosen autonomously and not “assigned” to us from others and; (3) seek a community of supporters who’ll bolster our spirit and determination while simultaneously respecting our autonomy.
Finally, it’s worth noting there’s one area which at first glance may seem to be external but is perhaps the MOST powerful intrinsic motivator of all. I’m referring to the sudden necessity to lose weight for health reasons. In a 2009 study, newly diagnosed individuals were significantly more likely to adopt healthier habits, including those which would lead to weight loss. (Keenan).
Moreover, witnessing the negative effects of obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related conditions in close relatives can also serve as ample cause to become weight conscious. For example, Cheskin and Donze found obese patients were most willing to change their attitude (and health habits) when a recent family event such as a heart attack or stroke reinforced the need to be more cautious (2001). And Meyer, Schelling, Munsch & Margraf (2010) note this is most likely because even though the event was extrinsic, individuals can extrapolate the implication for their personal well-being. In other words, most people know health is a personal issue influenced by personal choices. Health concerns and the will to avoid an early death thereby become self-motivating, intrinsic forms of motivation regardless of whether they occur in the individual themselves or their loved ones.
Sadly, many people wait until they are staring mortality in the face, either their own or a loved one’s, before becoming willing to take their physical health more seriously. Luckily, you do not have to wait for such an event to achieve success in the weight loss journey, because it’s entirely possible to begin the journey with extrinsic motivators, and shift to intrinsic ones over time.
Shifting from Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation with Time
Even if your initial weight loss motivation comes from external factors such as the opinion of loved ones or society’s opinion of you, you do NOT need to wait to get started, because external factors can and do provide the necessary fuel to get moving, and more recent research indicates “the source and nature of motivation for weight loss [can] markedly shift during the course…” (Teixeria et al., 2012).
Regardless of how you start your weight loss journey, by adopting the mindset you’re working to lose weight because you actually want to, and understanding maintenance is necessary in order to sustain the life you want, you can begin to shift your motives towards the intrinsically fueled end of the spectrum as you go. You do this by consciously cultivating personal meaning behind your weight loss goals wherever you can find it, and by staying focused on the process vs. the quantifiable goal. (Teixeria et al., 2012).
For example, if you’re going to include movement as part of your weight loss plan, a good tactic is to find a hobby or physical activity you actually enjoy. Werle, Wansink & Payne found that “framing a physical activity as fun,” as opposed to labeling it as exercise, was very effective in influencing their research subjects to maintain exercise (2014).
By participating in various types of physical activities, all three psychological needs are met: The need for relatedness and community support is achieved through active participation amongst teammates and competing with like-minded others. Autonomy is achieved through the conscious choice to participate in “challenges and experiences [that help] develop the sense of ownership and mastery which underpins autonomous regulation.” (Silva et al., 2010). Finally, the need for competence is achieved by building new skills and becoming proficient in the activity through practice.
When you choose a fun activity for your exercise you usually get support from others, a sense of autonomy from mastering the challenges, and competence from building new skills. It’s a positive trifecta! Researchers have also found looking at your exercise as a fun activity helps control both how much AND how healthy you eat! “Labeling a physical activity as fun reduced the number of calories consumed afterward,” and “perception of fun during a race positively influenced the choice of a healthy snack.” (Werle, Wansink & Payne, 2014).
Ultimately, your goal is to move from “should” to “want to!” (Silva, 2010).
Bottom line? Use whatever it takes to get started, but then try to make weight loss and the associated physical activity fun. Then it becomes much easier to adopt it as a permanent way of life, and suddenly maintaining a healthy weight becomes less of a challenge.
Also, as you move along your journey try to stop asking “how much weight can I lose.” Instead, try to ask “what kind of person will I become and why will that make me proud?”
There are two major categories of weight loss motivation – extrinsic vs. intrinsic, or motivation from without vs. motivation from within. Motivation from outside yourself can give you a big boost to kick your weight loss routine into gear, but in and of itself it rarely carries you to the goal or helps maintain weight loss after you reach a goal. For that, you’ll need to cultivate motivation from within. This requires you to believe it’s entirely possible to achieve success (competence), to ideally recruit a network of people who’ll support your independent efforts (community), and to really OWN each and every one of your goals of your own free will (autonomy), not merely to comply with goals imposed by others and/or society as a whole.
In short, to lose weight for good, you must become a different person around food (and possibly exercise) than you’ve ever been before. This isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds, and it’s perfectly OK to start the journey based solely on external forces, then cultivate internal motivation later on. In fact, both my thousands of hours of coaching experience with clients AND the hundreds of surveys we have received suggest that’s how MOST people do it!