Saturday, March 26, 2011

Developing a Motivation System for Weight Loss and Exercise Continuance

Is this you on December 31, “I am going to lose 30 pounds next year and look great for my 25th high school reunion?” January 1, you make the resolution. On February 1 you lose five pounds, but on March 1, you have gained back seven.

If so, you need to examine your motivation system. Motivation to achieve difficult goals usually requires a “system” of reinforcement behaviors rather than just one end-all be-all motivation device. There are two sources of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic. The drive connected to intrinsic motivation is “to be a better healthier person;” or, “responsible people keep their weight under control so as to look their best and avoid lifestyle diseases that come with being overweight, and I am a responsible person.” Examples of extrinsic drives are money, rewards, recognition, power, and even tokens.

When possible, we want to be motivated by intrinsic (internal rather than external) motivation, but it's not always possible to be internally motivated about everything. This is where extrinsic motivation becomes valuable. Good behaviors are often in competition with bad behavior. I can take my 4 mile walk or I can read on the couch. At the party, I can make healthy food choices or I can overeat foods with high sugar, salt, starch, or fat content. Motivation drives all those choices, both the good ones and bad ones. Also, good and bad motives are in competition for your will.

Motivation to behave a certain way is driven by how past behaviors have been reinforced. The reinforcement to overeat chocolate candy is because it tastes great. The reinforcement to restrict chocolate in your diet might come from wanting to maintain a recently gained weight loss goal. Or, by approving comments made by a significant other.

Motivation systems require a specific goal. The goal must be defined and what behaviors will be used to reach the goal. After the goal is set and the enabling behaviors determined, a series of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation schemes must be determined and linked together or nested. Also, the schemes will range from elaborate to simple. Especially the extrinsic rewards should be definable and tangible.

The MoneyWalker will illustrate how a motivation system works by using his own system as a working example. My new year’s goal was to be within what the American College of Sports Medicine defines as normal weight. My current weight is 173 pounds. For me, a normal weight is between 129 and 169 lbs. This number range was calculated using my height, weight, age, and gender and then placing the data into a Body Mass Index formula (BMI). My recommended BMI is between 19 and 25. Mine was 25.5 just into the “overweight” category. Thus, my specific goal is to lose four pounds.

Now that I have a specific goal, what set of behaviors am I going to use to lose the weight. The answer is to exercise regularly and practice portion control. My exercise of choice is one guaranteed to burn calories, a daily walk of four or five miles. Every mile burns 100 calories. Portion control means to eat smaller amount of foods known to cause fat storage—sugars, starches, and fats. I try to limit myself to 2200 hundred calories daily. With the exercise program, my net calorie for daily metabolism is between 1700 and 1800 calories. I should lose weight with that amount. I also will weight daily and record the weight in a journal. Although weight fluctuation is normal, upward trends aren’t. Daily weighing provides important trend data. Another behavior is to eat breakfast every day.

I have found that intrinsic motivation does not provide enough reinforcement to sustain my habit of daily walking. Also, feel-good strategies weren't helpful. Beautiful scenery didn’t work, variety of walks didn’t work, and walking with friends didn’t work--for me it was MoneyWalking. MoneyWalking is my name for finding money and other “valuable” objects while walking. Finding a piece of money on the ground is very powerful reinforcement. It supplies classic behavioral random variable reinforcement schedules. One never knows when, where, or how much money will be found during the walks. Also, MoneyWalking involves learning, the more you walk the more money you find. It is a matter of learning where people lose money.

Thus, MoneyWalking is the base of my motivation system, but many other types of motivation schemes are nested within the system. For example, I name the various types of money finds. My ventral striatum really fires hot and heavy when finding a scatter of pennies that someone just dumped on the ground. I call it a penny dump or a Benjamin dump (my son Benjamin tells me he just dumps his pennies on the curb when they accumulate in the console of his car).

Another technique is to count the money as it is found. My goal for each walk is to find one dollar are more. In the metric system “deci” means 1/10th. As I walk and find money, I keep count of the number of decis that are found. At the end of a walk, if I have found $1.29, I record 12 decis, one for every 1/10 of a dollar. While walking I am very aware of the number of decis and the fraction needed to make the next highest deci. In the above example I require just one more penny to earn another deci. Sometimes, I am tempted to add a few blocks to my walk just trying to close out the next higher deci level. Decis are like intermediate goals and serve as "tokens" I earn along the walk.

As mentioned above, daily weighing and recording the weight is nested into the system. I hate myself when today’s weight is higher than yesterday’s. Daily weighing is a great for self transparency. I weigh every morning, regardless of what splurge might have occurred the day before. A trending upward scale pattern is a grating reminder to cut back on the portions and monitor the choices.

Giving back to society is another form of external motivation nested into my system. I rehab, reuse, or repurpose hundreds of objects found during my walks. Then, ever six months, I conduct a MoneyWalker yard sale with all proceeds going to one of my favorite charities, the Baptist Friendship House for Abused Women and their Children or the University of New Orleans Homer L. Hitt Distinguished Lecture Series. Also, all the money found by the MoneyWalker is divided between these two charitable causes. There is nothing more rewarding than helping a worthy cause (and for some, the recognition that such giving bestows on the donor). “I can’t stop walking now, all those battered women and their children are counting on me.” is powerful self-talk.

In summary, if you are not meeting your weight loss goals, you might need to recalibrate your motivation system. Define your weight loss goal very specifically. Determine what behaviors you need to follow in order to reach your goal. Select a powerful base extrinsic motivation reward system, one that has the passion to sustain your behaviors. Combine your base motivator with secondary motivators to amplify the reinforcement. Be sure to include intrinsic motivation as a critical part of your system. Effective motivation systems are not easy to establish or follow. And worse, there are counterproductive motivation systems operating within you that compete for your willpower. Yet, a well conceived motivation system is a critical part of your weight loss and exercise program.

Remember, a happy walker is a regular walker.


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