The Truth About Motivation: How to Hack Your Brain and Reach Your Fitness Goals
By: Kent Bradley, M.D., M.B.A, M.P.H., Vice President, Medical Affairs Nutrition Education
Let’s be honest: many of us set the same New Year’s resolutions year after year. Actually, almost half of Americans tried to lose weight over the past 12 months. Striving to lose weight or incorporate more physical activity into your weekly schedule is a commendable starting point because it means you aim to be healthier.
Goal setting is easy, but actually achieving those objectives may prove more difficult. If you want to hit your weight loss target or fitness goal, motivation is key. It is a necessary element for a new behavior to occur.
Why Motivation Matters in Weight Loss and Fitness
So, how can you stick to your resolutions and finally cross them off your list? How do you stay motivated to reach your fitness goals?
Well, to start, you’ll need to believe in yourself and imagine what success will look like.
Belief can involve two things:
- What you believe about yourself
- What you believe you are capable of
Belief is critical for success for a very powerful reason: it breeds confidence.
Take weight loss, for example. Studies have consistently found that weight loss is more likely to be achieved and maintained if the person has a strong belief that they can accomplish it.
This confidence in one’s ability to achieve a specific goal is termed self-efficacy, and it is crucial to change the mindset with which we approach a goal. It determines how much effort will be used and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles.
According to psychologist Albert Bandura, expectations of self-efficacy are derived from four principal sources of information:
- Performance accomplishments
- Secondhand experience
- Verbal persuasion
- Physiological states
The Truth About Motivation and Willpower
The truth is: willpower is limited and self-motivation is difficult. Only about 8% of people who have made a New Year’s resolution achieve it. Plus, approximately 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February. So why is it so hard to keep motivated?
One of the main reasons is that change entails stress. Stress can make you feel frustrated, fatigued or anxious. Those feelings can become the fuel of self-sabotage, causing you to lose motivation.
Lack of motivation may also arise from setting unrealistic goals. The main reasons for doing so are optimism and uncertainty. You are sure you are going to make it this time, even though you are not really sure what a realistic goal is.
The Consequences of Unrealistic Goals
Failing to reach your weight loss or fitness goals may result in negative emotions like disappointment or frustration.
This, in turn, might lead to shame and self-defeating thoughts, such as:
- I can’t do this.
- Exercise is too hard or boring.
- My weight loss goal is overwhelming, why even try?
Negative self-talk will make it harder for you to visualize success. But keep in mind that it’s a process. Losing weight and being physically active takes patience and time. This is where small wins become so important.
Why Small Wins Matter: Your Motivational Fuel
Small wins are milestones you set to help you reach your specific goal. They serve as evidence that success can be achieved and, therefore, they can boost your confidence and change your beliefs on your own abilities to accomplish a goal.
For example, if your purpose is to lose 40 pounds, you might want to break that complex goal into more manageable pieces to handle: say, losing one pound a week. Each week you lose a pound is a small win.
Small wins are both motivating and encouraging. They can help reduce stress about an overwhelming goal, and in turn, give you a daily good habits action plan to follow. You can later leverage that competence toward subsequent, larger successes.
The Science of Small Wins
Behavior scientists have observed that encouraging people to set challenging goals is more likely to stimulate initial readiness to change. However, when faced with obstacles or challenges, reducing barriers to achieving smaller goals is a good strategy to keep motivation from decaying.
The reason behind this has to do with chemical processes that occur in our body. Accomplishments, even small ones, activate the reward circuitry in our brains. This means the dopamine neurotransmitter is released, filling us with energy, happiness, and pride.
Your brain will like the feeling so much, you will feel compelled to repeat the healthy action that triggered it. Your brain will be prone to turning it into a habit. This will make it easier for you to keep choosing a healthy meal over junk food or striving to hit the 1k in the treadmill.
How to Use Small Wins to Boost Motivation and Achieve Your Fitness Goals
These practical steps to achieve small wins will help you to get started:
1. Choose a goal that is meaningful to you
Don’t focus on goals that are trendy or that worked for someone else. You are a unique individual and your goals should reflect that. Set a goal that makes you want to work for it.
2. Make sure that your goals are SMART
Your weight loss or fitness goal should be specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented and time-bound.
For example, if you haven’t done exercise in a while and want to get back on track, a SMART goal could be: I will hit the gym two days a week for a month and burn at least 1,000 calories each day.
3. Surround yourself with social support
Good habits are tough to establish, so having a community around you for support, guidance, and encouragement can be critical.
At Herbalife Nutrition, our nutrition clubs are just that: small businesses where like-minded people come together to improve their health, fitness, and wellbeing all while benefitting from a supportive community who provide encouragement and guidance.
4. Notice your small wins and celebrate them
Take the time to appreciate your small wins! Don’t limit your happiness by thinking they are not worth the excitement. If you managed to lose the pound you intended this week, share it with a friend who cares and enjoy!
There’s no better time to begin pursuing your goals than today. And if you follow the steps above, I’m confident you’ll be well on your way to a happier and healthier year.