Why Do We Lack Health Motivation?


Did you know you lose less weight using a fitness tracker?

“We went in with the hypothesis that adding the technology would be more effective than not having the technology, and we found just the opposite,” said John Jakicic, author of the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This should not be news to you because as I’ve written about about the missing ingredients of wearables and apps:

  • Motivation
  • Accountability

So why is it so hard to get motivated to eat healthy and be more active?
 And why is it so hard to sustain consistent nutrition and exercise habits??

  • The failure rate of diet and exercise (Pubmed study and ACJN study) is
  • 80% after 1 year,
  • 95% after 2 years,
  • and almost 100% after 3 years .

The truth is, I personally rationalize about my health and below I share some of my favorite excuses (I also share success tips).

But back to motivation or the lack thereof.

This subject fascinates me and I’ve systematically studied it for years from a lot of angles including psychology, neuroscience, epigenetics, quantum theory, theory of willpower, economics, wearable computing and even metaphysics.

Here is what I’ve learned so far:

  • Go On Green: As a coach I’ve observed firsthand that motivation is ephemeral, but the subconscious is forever. In practical application, this means leveraging short term motivation to build sustinable habits that DON’T require motivation. Health and fitness, like any new skill set follows a predictable learning framework. My goal is to get clients from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence as quickly and sustainably as possible.
  • Willpower: The conventional wisdom holds the belief that willpower is a finite resource (known as “ego-depletion). But what if the will isn’t so fragile? In recent years, several papers have complicated and critiqued the strength (aka ego depletion) model of self- control. In a 2012 paper, Miller et al. pointed out that only people who believed in the impotence of willpower — they agreed that “after a strenuous activity, your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again” — performed worse on repeated tests of the will. In contrast, subjects who believed that self-control was seemingly inexhaustible — “After a strenuous mental activity, you feel energized for further challenging activities” — showed no depletion effects at all. This suggests that the exhaustion of willpower is caused by a belief about our mental resources, and not by an actual shortage of resources. We think we’re weak, and so we are. The science becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • The 40% Rule: Espoused and lived by the elite US Navy SEALS, the 40% Rule states that when you are ready to quit, you are actually only at 40% of your full capacity and potential. As applied to motivation and willpower, it means you can achieve 2.5 times what your mind tells you is possible. As applied to nutrition and exercise, it means you can lose twice as much fat and be twice as strong as you think you can. And as applied to coaching and teamwork, it means you will stay motivated longer and try harder when you are publicly accountable to reach your health and fitness goals.
  • Psychology: There are almost a dozen main theories of personality that address conation (will) including pyschoanalytic, neo-analytic,biological, behaviorist, cognitive, trait theory, humanistic, and interactionist. None of them address complex health behavior very well. By far the best health psychology model I’ve found is Patterns Adapting to Health (PATH) by Dr Fred Navarro. Currently I have my Level 1 Certification and am working towards my Level 2 Certification.
  • Neuroscience: According to neuroscience there is neural hardwiring in your brain that predisposes you towards unhealthy choices in a food abundant environment. Some of your hardwiring is epigenetic (evolutionary survival strategies encoded in your DNA). And some of your hardwiring is the result of your family history and your personal experiences.
  • The good news is, using the principle of neuroplasticity, you can ‘rewire’ your brain, that is, de-program bad habits and re-program good habits. Generally it takes about 100 repetitions to initiate this neural rewiring process. For example, if you make 3 good meal choices and 2 healthy snack choices a day, you can start seeing results in as little as 3 weeks (5 x 21 = 105).
  • Quantum Mechanics: In management science there is a saying that “What Gets Measured Gets Done”. At the quantum level, thanks to the property of “superposition”, all possibilities are simultaneously true until the act of measurement “fixes” just one possibility (think of Schrodingers Cat experiment). What does this mean for health? It means you can be healthy and fit or fat and unhealthy — depending on how observe yourself.
  • Self Image: A recent poll revealed some interesting findings about male self image. Most notably, it found that men worry about their appearance more than they worry about their health, jobs or relationships. Fifty-three per cent of respondents said they felt unsure about their appearance at least once a week. The study broke down the results further. Nearly two-thirds of men said they always felt they should lose weight. Over half didn’t like to have their picture taken. Over 40% said they worried others would judge them by their appearance.
  • Tip: Be aware of your Saboteur (negative) thoughts regarding your body image. While such thoughts can be useful in initiating positive change, long term they can drag you back into relapse if you are not careful. The secret is to replace unconscious Saboteur thoughts with conscious Sage thoughts such as “Will my decision move me closer to my stated health & fitness goals?”
  • Behavioral Economics: “Time preference” is a relative valuation placed on an earlier date compared to its valuation at a later date. In business you may be familiar with the terms “time value of money” or “discounted cash flow” or “net present value”. How does time preference translate to heath and fitness? My observation is that people “discount” the future value of good health and also “discount” the risk of future bad health. For exercise, I observe that people put a “premium” (cost) on the short term effort of getting started, and discount future exercise as being easier (as in “I’ll skip working out today but work out harder tomorrow”).
  • Wearable Computing: A new analysis comparing two sets of dieters discovered that those wearing activity trackers lost less, not more, weight than the tech-free dieters. “We went in with the hypothesis that adding the technology would be more effective than not having the technology, and we found just the opposite,” said John Jakicic, author of the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. If you are a Healthy Executive reader, you know I am currently skeptical on apps and wearables and have shown why they don’t work and what they are missing.
  • Values Overload: A better question to motivate health and fitness change is not ‘How’, it’s ‘Why?’. Knowing your ‘Why’ provides more powerful motivation than just “lose a few pounds”. As a coach I observe that my clients goals and values are all meant to contribute to their happiness. When there are too many goals, they simply run out of time and energy to get them all done. In other cases it helps to understand there is not a conflict in the first place. Eating a donut will make you happy, and so will being fit. So go for a run AND eat the donut. Both are happiness goals, so why give up one for the other? If you are really strapped for time, eat the donut on the run :)
  • Quantum Behavior Ken Resnicow is a professor of health behavior at the University of Michigan who has published a number of papers on the phenomenon of quantum behavior change. “One can jump from precontemplation into action at a moment’s notice.” Not just that, but dedicated action. In most psychological models the the “action” stage is tenuous. They’re struggling to adopt the new behavior in order to achieve “maintenance.” But with quantum behavior change there is no struggle; it is not a tenuous adoption.
  • Epiphany: The typical epiphanies are, ‘Oh, shit! I don’t want to be this person anymore! It’s an overwhelming sense that the ground has shifted beneath you and it’s not going to go back. There has been a tectonic plate movement in how you view your identity and your behavior, and they’re no longer compatible. It’s hard to describe an epiphany as an “approach” to motivation, since we don’t know much about what causes them — they mostly just happen. However, when they do happen, they’re usually more effective than the rational, linear approach to willpower that rules modern psychology.
  • Metaphysics: A 2008 article published in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at how we normally see behavior change — as a rational, reductionist model that is proportional (small inputs = small outputs) — and how real life is often a chaotic process that is unpredictable. The study examined how life transformation can arrive “beyond cognition”.
  • Balance Sheet Decision: Reaching a tipping point to move towards action involves a change of focus. One goes from the balance favoring the ‘cons’ of adopting a new behavior to giving more weight to the ‘pros.’ But it’s not just a 51–49 tipping of the balance sheet. In 2010 Jennifer Di Noia, a professor of sociology at William Patterson University in New Jersey did a meta-analysis of 27 different studies used to evaluate decisional balance; they were specifically looking at dietary changes to affect weight loss. Published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, it came to some fascinating conclusions. Specifically for implementing dietary changes, the pros have to outweigh the cons by almost a two-to-one ratio to be truly effective!
  • Motivation Impairment: Poor health silently impairs our ability to make better decisions. We all know that drinking and driving don’t mix. If you get pulled over while driving with with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% you are legally impaired. Pilots can’t legally fly about 12,500 feet without supplemental oxygen because it impairs their judgement. Firefighters know that carbon monoxide can silently impair judgment in emergencies. In a similar fashion, extra weight, poor fitness, lack of sleep, and low energy can cumulatively impair our motivation.

I want to share with you my struggles and what I was thinking and feeling as my good decisions turned into marginal decisions which then led to bad decisions.

My Health Rationalizations

By far, my psychology was the most subtle thus most difficult struggle I experienced when I was unhealthy and unfit.

Here are some of my inner rationalizations that impaired taking action and making healthier decisions:

  • I don’t have time:
  • I’m too busy putting out fires.
  • My travel schedule won’t allow me.
  • Customers keep changing deadlines.
  • I’m not too bad off:
  • I try to eat right and exercise now and then.
  • My friends are in worse shape than me.
  • I’ll start tomorrow:
  • All the more reason to indulge today!
  • Eat, drink, be merry for tomorrow we die.
  • I can’t exercise right now:
  • Doctor’s orders, I have a “condition”.
  • I’m too tired, I need some down time.
  • I can only do a little, so its hardly worth getting started.
  • I should care, but I don’t care:
  • Toughing out pain is a badge of honor.
  • I can’t exercise, the weather is terrible:
  • Mexico is too hot, Canada is too cold.
  • I need better information:
  • I’m looking for the newest ultimate secret perfect tactic.
  • The most recent diet/fitness study contradicts the previous ones.
  • I’ll wait until all the experts finally agree with each other.
  • I’m overwhelmed:
  • I have too many people to take care of right now.
  • I’m too far behind, I’ll never catch up.
  • Getting healthy is just another damn thing on my to-do list.
  • I don’t want to try something that doesn’t work for me:
  • I hate diets and gyms.
  • These programs are too simple, my requirements are complex.
  • I only listen to people who are more successful than me.
  • I have to eat everything I’m served:
  • I don’t want to offend my hosts.
  • Mom told me to clean my plate.
  • Children are starving in Africa.

How Did I Feel Without Motivation?

Due to my past health rationalizations I managed to gain 25 lbs and lose 75% of my strength. This is what I felt like:

  • Productivity: Less energy meant it took me more time to get things done.
  • Cognition: I found it harder to concentrate and the quality of my work suffered as a result.
  • Physically: No matter how much I slept, I would wake up feeling tired.
  • Emotionally: I felt embarrassed by how I looked and pictures of myself disgusted me.
  • Self-Image: I believe in leading by example, and I felt I was letting my stakeholders down as I became unhealthy.
  • Motivation: Lower energy reduced my enthusiasm and made it harder for me to stay positive.
  • Stress: I felt less resilient and more overwhelmed.

Motivation Tips & Traps

Here are some tips and tricks I used to stay motivated and on track.

  • Tip #1: Use the scales every day.
  • The conventional wisdom is to only weigh yourself once a week. And that might be good advice when you are at your goal weight and in maintenance mode. But when I am in loss mode I do weigh myself every day. Here’s why. If I am above my target, this motivates me to make better food choices and make sure I hit my exercise goals. If I am below my target, this motivates me to keep making good decisions in order to keep my hard-won gains.
  • Trap #1: I’m doing really well, I should reward myself.
  • It turns out your brain can hijack your success to derail your progress. If I lose an extra pound, it’s very tempting to reward myself with a doughnut (or two….see the problem?). My mind urging me to sabotage myself isn’t my only struggle. If I don’t keep a close watch, my mind will try and “crowd out” my health goals by becoming over-run with too many urgent but not important tasks.
  • Tip #2: Think like an astronaut.
  • Astronauts mentally pre-rehearse difficult situations in advance. Why? It turns out that anticipating problems in advance makes them easier to deal with when they actually arise. When I know that I will occasionally get hungry due to temporary calorie restriction, then I am much less likely to give in and much more successful at waiting to my next snack or meal.
  • Trap #2: Obsessing about mastery.
  • Don’t get caught up on what kind gear or esoteric techniques your favorite role model uses. Remember that pros were once beginners, and that they too started with the fundamentals. Reading about the “newest” or “latest” is really a disguised search for “easier”. This is just wishful thinking that you can skip over doing the basics.
  • Tip #3: Well begun is half done (proverb).
  • Start of your week right and get a longer walk in on Sunday. It sets up a positive mindset for your week, and it feels way better to “race from the front” instead of “coming from behind”. For the same reason, don’t put off exercise till the end of day when one is prone to be tired, demotivated, or distracted.

How Did I Feel With Motivation?

Psychology and motivation is perhaps 80% of the battle when making changes, whether they be in business or lifestyle or health. Still, we are human, and the other 20% is also important to take into account. So I want to be open and honest about what I experienced during the first 4 weeks when I committed to becoming healthy and fit again:

  • Emotionally: I feel really good taking action to improve my health. Before, I definitely felt worse because I knew I was putting off something that would benefit me.
  • Productivity: My productivity has not gone down even though I have added 30 minutes of weekly exercise (15 minutes strength, 15 minutes cardio). In part I think it’s because I consciously use my time walking as opportunity to think through business problems.
  • Cognition: I definitely observe less “fog” in my thinking. I attribute it to sleeping better due to walking daily and cutting back wine 85% (from once a day to once a week).
  • Physically: I experienced some initial soreness in my feet from walking, calves from sprinting, and thighs/pecs from strength training. But those same activities also contributed to my abs feeling stronger and tighter (let’s call it a 2-pack for now :)
  • Self-Image: I believe in leading by example. What better way to do that than to personally demonstrate what works as an online health coach?
  • Sex-Appeal: I was pleasantly shocked when a girlfriend saw a noticeable improvement in my face and upper chest at the end of week 4. It turned her on. Believe me, I was extra motivated to perform during week 5 :)
  • Motivation: I felt pumped starting my 12-week challenge. Using apps and the scales daily reinforces my commitment levels and seeing my measurements improve weekly is also very positive feedback.
  • Stress: I feel hunger before some of my meals due to my caloric reduction (especially on weekends when I walk more). But I know the hunger is temporary and within my coping abilities, which is a form of eustress not distress.
  • Social Support: Did you know that research shows that people with social support lose more than three times the pounds of a self-help group? I will talk about how I used Social Media to achieve this effect in a future post in this series.
  • Travel: Business took me from my boat in Mexico back to Silicon Valley. Then I spent a week with my kids to celebrate their birthdays. Then I had a fight with my ex-wife. I coped with my stress eating using these 33 countermeasures.
  • Temptation: I definitely felt tempted to eat more and to watch sports instead of going for a walk. I deal with my temptation using one simple question: “Will this food or fitness choice move me closer to my goal or farther away??”

Originally published at The Healthy Executive.