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  • Writer's pictureJackie

Follow Your Heart

What Motivates Your Wellness Plan?

Exercising and eating well don’t happen on autopilot. If you do these things, you do them for a reason. We’re all seeking SOME outcome, or we wouldn’t devote the sometimes seemingly endless effort to living well.

What we want from that effort tends to point, whether we consciously know it or not, to what we currently value. And what we value can be fluid. At different ages, under different circumstances, what motivates us changes.

I’ve seen this in my own life. As a teen, I ran daily, yearning to be as skinny as the girls who could own those designer jeans of the ’80s. (At the time, I didn’t realize exercise may have, no exaggeration, preserved my life as I was experiencing my first bout of serious depression.) In my 20s, during a six-week stint in a leg cast, I adopted strength training, valuing perseverance no matter what. In my 30s, I exercised & ate well to be a kick-butt, healthy, pregnant chick and mama—”Selfish” self care freed me to love my family more selflessly. (Say that five times fast!) In my 40s, stress relief prevailed. Now in my 50s, I try to maximize quality of midlife, hoping to extend my stay on the planet by influencing what I can. (My parents passed away at 60 and 61, so I’m endlessly dogged by a perceived need to overcome genetics.) Over time, some motivations have crystallized—cultivation of mental & physical health, perseverance, joy, and stress relief which (on a good day) frees up energy to share with others.

What drives YOU? Why do you exercise? Why do you buy lots of certain foods and others only sparingly? Why do you get to bed when you do each night? Why do you do any of the health-related behaviors you follow? If you look at the activities you rarely skip, they’ll tell you something about what matters to you.

Knowing specifically why we hold onto healthy habits helps us keep them going. The reasons can boil down into mini mantras that get us out of bed in the morning. “Because I want to live a long life” might abbreviate to: “Thrive.” “The kids need me” becomes: “Serve.” “I’m running that race in a month” translates to: “Compete.” A single word can inspire a day, a week, a month of habits.

Sometimes the inspiration, depending on the underlying motivation, has a shelf life. Impending beach vacations, for instance, often spawn the mantra: “Swimsuit.” Striving for a particular appearance is an example of extrinsic motivation. When we’re more outwardly focused, external factors, like how we’ll look half-dressed, spur us on. There’s nothing wrong with this, but research suggests we should use extrinsic motivation sparingly. Its oomph can be fleeting.

There’s a big reason extrinsic motivation eventually fails us. In essence, it’s conditional. “Earning money” through a workplace weight loss game, for example, creates one winner and a bunch of losers. Over time, you can “lose” frequently enough that you no longer feel motivated —or worse, you feel discouraged.

Sometimes extrinsic motivation even seems coercive. For example, if you’re only working toward weight loss to please a partner, you can begin to believe you’re not “acceptable” until you reach a particular size, whether or not your significant other actually feels this way. Even working toward the “beach body” mentioned above may make it seem like you’re not worthy of baring yourself surfside til you reach a certain weight. Unless you remain keenly aware of this pitfall, extrinsic motivation will stop working at some point. But again, you CAN use it in doses.

More reliable is intrinsic motivation, which just as it sounds, comes more from within. Exercising because it makes us feel great, eating salad because it tastes good, building physical strength to do a job well, sleeping sufficiently because we interact better with the world & feel better about ourselves when we do—Such drivers reflect internal motivations. They don’t require anything outside ourselves to keep habits rolling. When we use intrinsic motivation, our own spirit feeds our healthy habits by reminding us what matters most to us deep down.

If you’ve done something healthy for yourself today, ask why. The answer should reveal your motivation. Examine the response to see from whence it came. (Yes, I slipped into olde English there for a sec.) If it arises from without, be discriminating about how long you think you can make the tactic work. If it emanates from within, rely on it for the longer journey.


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