Several years ago I attended a workshop where the clinician talked about the difference between “motivators” and “activators” in regard to rewards for specific behaviors. In this case, the behavior was practicing the piano. But I believe that the differences between these two factors have ramifications for us, as well, in the realm of healthy living.
Motivation refers to the intrinsic rewards one receives as a result of doing something. In music, one is motivated to learn a piece of music because that composition provides the musician with “food for the soul,” or the opportunity to overcome particular technical or musical challenges. Activation refers to external rewards or benefits that one receives as a result of doing something. One might be activated to learn a piece of music, or to practice scales, exercises, etc. in hope of receiving a prize, a “gold star,” “praise from the teacher or parent,” etc. Learning music for a job is also an example of being “activated.” As an accompanist, I am, from time to time, required to learn music that I don’t particularly care for. But that’s irrelevant. I don’t get paid to “like” the music; I get paid to play it. The promise of financial reward “activates” me to learn the music and perform it to the best of my ability.
Already thinking of parallels with the way we think about healthy living? Several have occurred to me, over the years. First of all, let’s review the three factors that support a healthy lifestyle: 1. Generally taking care of yourself, including medical/dental care, stress management, and sufficient rest/sleep, 2. Nutrition, and 3. Exercise.
What’s gotten you to bother with any of this? I just saw an advertisement on television for some diet or exercise device that was saying one could be “beach ready” in just nine weeks! And it’s easy to find workout routines, mostly marketed to men, touted for “building 10 pounds of pure muscle in just 10 weeks!” And of course, these ads are always accompanied by pictures of women and men in bathing suits, looking beautiful, perfectly sculpted, with defined muscles and glowing skin. Which brings up another issue—what does society consider “normal” and “good looking” and why? That’s a topic for an entire book in itself!
Embarking upon a diet/exercise plan because one wants to look like the model on the front of a magazine would be an example of “activation.” “I’ll follow this diet and this exercise plan, and then I’ll be rewarded with a body like that one.” Here’s the catch, though, that you’re not told: genetics play a large part in the way one’s body appears, and beyond that, the staging, lighting, body position while being photographed, makeup, and even the way that a model eats and drinks in the days leading up to a photo shoot, all contribute to the look of the final product. Furthermore, an editor can enhance the photo after the fact to make it look even “more perfect!” I confess that I’ve picked up an exercise magazine or two over the years, and been inspired by the athletic, fit, men who appear on the covers, but I’m telling you from personal experience that most of us will never look like those people. And that is completely OK! “Appearance” is an activator, just as is the goal of getting into a certain clothes size. Nothing wrong with wanting to improve one’s appearance, and if losing (or gaining) some weight contributes to that, then great! Other, more obvious activators include things like the wager I made with my friend at the beginning of my weight loss journey. A monetary reward if the goal was met. Now that I think about it, I remember that my mom promised to buy new clothes for me after I’d reached my goal weight; yet another activator. Other less obvious activators include “doing it for someone else.” Whether it’s believing that someone will love us more, or we’ll gain their approval, or they’ll stop making fun of us—all activators. More subtle activators include our own ideas about body image, healthy weight, etc. These can even become toxic, as in some cases of anorexia or bulimia.
I propose that it would be better to be motivated.
What if our primary goal would simply be to enhance our quality of life? Less joint pain because we’re not carrying around excess body weight? Improved strength and flexibility to make day-to-day activities easier? The potential for longer life along with better quality of life, giving us time to spend doing things we’ve always wanted, or to spend time with loved ones? Think about it: is there really any greater reward? Don’t misunderstand me, and think that I’m only listing positives here. Some motivators can be negative. Fear of dying prematurely is a good example. I know of several people who started their weight loss program, and/or started exercising because they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of family members. It’s sad when we watch a loved one in declining health; especially if he or she could have taken better care of him/herself. And this is a motivator because the reward is intangible; it’s something inside us, that we feel—physically, emotionally, mentally.
It also means that our primary goal is, and always will be, to be headed in the right direction, to be on the road toward success. Being in the process of improving your health means that you’ve already achieved an important goal. Improved health and quality of life are the results of staying in that process. And please remember: the path to success is rarely a straight line. Be prepared for ups, downs, sideways movements, plateaus, etc. Keeping your eyes on the primary goal, and thinking about the “big picture” are the important things.
All this is not to say that activators can’t be useful: “I’m going to buy myself a new outfit after I’ve lost twenty pounds,” for example; but I believe that keeping one’s focus on the deeper motivation is the secret to staying on track. When quality of life is the motivating goal, we take the entire person into account, and attend to all of the factors that contribute to it.
Not just getting ready for the beach.