Let's face it—motivation isn't easy or we'd all be our ideal weights, our fridges would be stocked with kale and we'd get more than enough beauty sleep. So how can we boost the drive to get physically and emotionally fit? We went to the experts to find out.
Ask Dianne Stott to rank her level of motivation when it comes to her health and wellness on a scale of one (motivational mess) to 10 (motivational master) and she admits she's a solid three. "I once hired a personal trainer, figuring I'd feel motivated to get fit," she says. "Then, after working out, I'd ruin all my hard work by eating ice cream. I never did use up my personal-training sessions, and I'm too embarrassed to go back."
Dianne, 51, says she struggles to stay motivated long enough to get her physical and emotional health in order—and there's a pretty clear reason why: The Uxbridge, Ont., resident puts the needs of her husband and son before her own, always using up her time and energy on others. "I feel guilty if I don't cook meals, do laundry and show up at my son's hockey games. I go, go, go—so I'm drained when it comes to time for me."
External reasons abound, sure, but we can thank our motivation—or the lack thereof—for hitting up the drive-through and skipping the gym in favour of the couch. Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, explains motivation like this: "It's the internal signal that drives us to take action." And a big part of that internal signal is dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in our brains. (This helps control the brain's reward centre; it regulates our emotional responses and lets us not only see rewards but also take action to get those incentives.) A study published in the journal Neuron in 2012 found that dopamine is released in conjunction with us getting a reward, boosting our motivation to repeat our actions. "Our biology motivates us to do things that are good for our health via dopamine," says Dr. Kang. "When we get a hit of it—after a workout, making a healthy meal or helping someone—it gives us a sense of well-being and pleasure, and it sends a signal to our brains to do whatever we did again."
The thing is, though, "the brain is like a fingerprint, so what motivates one person doesn't motivate another," says Dr. Kang. If that's the case, what ultimately keeps us motivated? The good news is that, no matter what boosts your dopamine levels, there are universal ways to increase your drive, reach your goals and stay deter-mined. Here are six expert-approved ways to do so.
1. Set frequent small goals
Evidence suggests that we're not wired to keep our eyes on a long-term prize. "We respond a lot more readily to immediate rewards," says Anne Wilson, a social psychology professor who studies motivation at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. "That's why chocolate cake—rewarding yourself in the moment—can distract you from longer goals where the rewards are in the distant future." To get past it, set up several little milestones on your path toward a certain goal. "This allows you to stop and enjoy successes along the way, which can sustain motivation," says Wilson.
So, instead of skipping exercise altogether because you can't commit to an hour at the gym, take baby steps. While the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology says that adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, it also says it's perfectly acceptable to break that time down into 10-minute workouts done more frequently. What's more, according to research published last year from the University Hospital of Saint-Étienne in France, walking for just 15 minutes a day was associated with a 22-percent lower risk of death in people over 60. Then, think about the benefits you instantly receive by going on that walk: lower stress, increased energy and better sleep. "Focusing on immediate benefits may be what gets you off the couch when the temptation of Netflix beckons," says Wilson.
2. Start with a clean slate
We've all likely used this one: I'll start my diet on Monday. "Fresh starts can help give people that initial boost of motivation needed to start pursuing a goal," says Wilson. "This can include symbolic transition days like New Year's or a birthday, but we encounter smaller opportunities for a fresh start regularly, say, the start of each month or even each week." The trick with fresh starts is to use them as a first step toward a goal and to avoid the potential pitfalls. "There's a risk of using fresh starts as a licence to procrastinate the goal and indulge now," she says. "For example, if you start your healthy-eating plan on Monday and find your motivation waning by Thursday, you might be tempted to give up on the week, indulge in pizza, chips and ice cream all weekend, promising yourself to start again next Monday." Wilson says this cycle will lead to a spiral of success and failure. Maximize your chance of success by combining a fresh start with setting achievable milestones and coming up with contingency plans so you don't slip.
3. Trash the negative self-talk
You'll probably derail your motivation if you engage in bad-mouthing yourself. "Sometimes, people do it to motivate themselves, imagining that some harsh criticism about their failures or laziness will push them to take action," explains Wilson. "That strategy is more likely to contribute to low self-worth and shame." Boost your motivation by pretending you're encouraging a friend to overcome his or her challenges. "It wouldn't include a barrage of criticism but, rather, encouragement and understanding. Practising self-compassion can be very effective for dealing with setbacks and helps motivate further improvement," she says. If you find that little voice creeping in, understand it's a temporary derailment and try a mantra, suggests Dr. Kang. "Helpful mantras have two parts: to validate the negative thought or experience and to focus on the positive outcome." Here's a mantra you can use: "I'm having a minor/major setback, but I'm not giving up. It will all work out. I will eventually get there." Rinse and repeat.
4. Drop unrealistic goals
Pursuing an unattainable target—losing 50 pounds before your high school reunion next month or entirely cutting out wine—won't do you any favours. Here's why: Unrealistic intentions reinforce negative belief patterns, says Dr. Kang. So, when you set weight-loss goals that you're highly unlikely to reach, for instance, this is what you'll end up telling yourself when you don't meet your mark: "I'll never do it. It's too hard. Things don't work out for me." This thinking won't get you anywhere, says Dr. Kang, and, in fact, instead of boosting your drive, these damaging feelings could have adverse effects on the progress you've already made.
5. Work on willpower
It took a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis five years ago for Hina P. Ansari to motivate herself to get healthy. The Toronto-based 47-year-old admits to never setting aside time for a fitness regimen and eating a less-than-nutritious diet on a less-than-ideal schedule. "I went through the gym phase years ago. I went twice and that was it," she says. "It wasn't until I realized that I had no choice but to work out that my motivation kicked in. There's nothing like the dreadful thought that you may end up in a wheelchair to motivate you to move your butt." So Hina found the willpower to enrol in solo Pilates sessions. After two years, her confidence level rose and she tried group classes. "I saw results. My leg was stronger and I no longer needed a brace to help me walk."
"Our willpower is the effort we put in to stay on task, avoid temptations and persist at a difficult goal," says Wilson. The important point here is that believing you have willpower can change your assumptions about when your motivation is ultimately going to fizzle out.
6. Join forces
As long as we're pursuing goals with others who are motivated, we'll benefit and stay determined. "For example, if you work out with a friend who is a more habitual exerciser, that person can be a role model by sharing strategies she uses to stay on track and overcome obstacles, and she can make you more accountable," explains Wilson. You're less likely to hit snooze if you know your work-out partner will be left waiting for you. A study published in 2011 in Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that people were more likely to work up a sweat if their romantic partners exercised with them; the same was true when it came to working out with their best friends. The only caveat? They had to feel like those friends were cheering them on. (The researchers found this support was especially true for women.)