Why are some people able to start and stick with a fitness lifestyle, while others struggle? The short answer is...
Your abilities, values, and interests shape your motivation.
Now for the slightly longer explanation.
Abilities: We avoid things we’re not skilled at doing.
If we aren’t a physical person, coordinated, or athletic, we might avoid taking up yoga, running, or strength training because we see ourselves as readers, indoor people, people who don’t sweat, or some other identifier.
While it's true some people have abilities that lend to being consistent and disciplined with health and fitness, lack of discipline is not always why others struggle. Though this assumption is frequently made. Many people who might be perceived as undisciplined in their health have plenty of discipline in other areas of life.
As an aside, did you know many people don't like exercise because of the sweating? In addition, sixty percent of surveyed adults said they find sweating more embarrassing than when they have an acne breakout.
You know what they say, success is ninety percent perspiration. Those wet rings under your arms will have people saying, "Wow, that person's made it!"
Before I started pursuing a healthy lifestyle I would tell people, “I only run if I’m being chased by a bear” and “I’m an indoor girl.” I couldn't identify as someone who exercised because I was extremely out of shape. I broke a sweat just trying to get dressed. Or undressed. And especially trying to extract myself out of a wet bathing suit. (Who am I kidding? I didn't wear bathing suits.)
I created an identity of someone who didn’t do physical activities by choice when, in fact, I didn’t think I could exercise any more. I was too far gone.
With anything new or unfamiliar, starting small is a good way to overcome avoidance. Starting with something simple, like walking, is an example. For those unable to walk, a physical therapist or certified fitness professional can be consulted for some basic exercises.
Values: We avoid things that aren’t a priority.
James is a single dad of three kids ages 5, 8, and 10 and is in full dad bod mode. He hasn’t eaten a healthy diet, nor exercised, since his wife died from ovarian cancer 18 months ago.
James’ co-worker is a fitness buff and casually teases James for not having the "discipline" to pursue a healthy lifestyle. The "why" behind James' inactive lifestyle is an assumption. Our assumptions often reveal more about us, than about the person we’ve made an assumption.
It's easy for us to make assumptions about people because we aren't living in their situation.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological model that outlines our basic human needs. At the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization (becoming the most one can be).
Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to higher needs. Therefore, James' needs at the bottom of the hierarchy, such as safety and love, have been impacted by the loss of his partner.
While it’s true a healthy lifestyle would equip James to better support his family, especially with stress management and better sleep, he has to be ready to make lifestyle changes for those changes to stick - especially during a period of grief and loss.
James must focus his energy on the stabilizing needs at the bottom of the human needs hierarchy before he can focus on self-actualization.
We commonly fall into the trap of believing people either want, or should prioritize what we prioritize. Can you think of a time someone gave you advice or judged you based on what he or she thought was important, but wasn’t at all important to you?
How many times have you heard the statement, “If you pursue a career in ____________ you won’t make any money.”
People doling out this advice value something along the lines of success and status, or perhaps security or stability. They assume everyone else values the same things they do. Or that they should.
Or what about, “Motorcycles are dangerous. You’ll regret it if you buy one.” The person who shares this opinion probably values safety over adventure and risk-taking.
(But Kristin, motorcycles are dangerous.)
It’s hard for those of us who value safety to relate to the idea that people who thrive on adventure and risk would rather die than live life toggled on safety mode.
The bottom line is James has values-driven reasons for not prioritizing hitting the gym right now, influenced by a situation that prevents him from being emotionally ready.
But what if you're not in a situation like James and you still can't seem to find your motivation?
The good news is your values can help you create motivation if you intentionally tap into them. Setting the goal "lose twenty pounds" isn't a motivating goal for most people.
Yet, this is how most weight loss goals are approached: numbers and scales.
Setting a goal to move more and make healthier food choices so that I live long enough to meet my grandchildren (if any of my four children choose to have kids) and keep active with them is a motivating goal for me.
What is a motivating goal for you?
You need to know what you value to set values-based goals effectively. Then you can make one daily decision at a time. Which of these choices will help me reach my goal today? If you make the right choice only eighty percent of the time, you'll likely reach your goal. You don't need to choose perfectly every time. You just need to be consistent enough.
Interests: We avoid things we don’t prefer to do.
In addition to having different values, James might consider his co-worker's prompts to get to the gym a boring proposition.
Our interests fall into the following categories:
Influencing and persuading others
Working with one’s hands
Organizing and creating structure
Unstructured situations that allow creating, imagining and originality
Thinking, learning and solving problems
Picking your nose ('It wasn't a pick. It was a scratch!' Just checking you're with me.)
Of the six interests, which two categories are most like you? Also, consider the two categories least like you.
When you imagine yourself using your two motivating categories, how does that feel?
When you imagine using your two least motivating categories, how does that feel compared to the motivating categories?
For example, James prefers thinking and organizing. He's motivated by solving problems and creating structure to support implementation of solutions.
When James considers his two least motivating interests they're working with his hands and creating.
James is more motivated using his brain than moving his body, folks!
This helps us understand, at least in part, why pursuing fitness also hasn't been a priority for James in the past. We often have a complex web of reasons behind our choices.
First, his values are focused on other priorities. You might think nothing is more important than health, but not everyone will agree - at least not with their actions.
Our priorities shape our actions.
Second, people often don’t know how to align their actions to their interests to achieve sustained motivation.
Because James is motivated by thinking and is somewhat sedentary because he spends a lot of time working, reading, researching and, well, thinking, he could start by taking walks listening to thought-provoking podcasts or audiobooks instead of trying to join exercise classes.
However, if you prioritize socializing and relationships, an exercise group could be a great idea. People high in relationship orientation can find exercise isolating, so having a walking partner or joining line dancing classes is a way to stay active with other people – as long as you’re not doing more drinking than dancing!
How can you incorporate movement with your interests? How can you align your values to better health goals? What are some abilities you have that you can harness to achieve motivation for your health and fitness?
Motivation is complex. This is why what works for one person doesn't always work for another. Self-awareness is key to understanding how to unlock and understand your motivation.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Looking to understand and be understood? Self-awareness is where to start.
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Cover photo credit: Danielle Cerullo