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Why You Should Stop Trying to Get in Shape

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Research suggests that virtually everyone who adheres to a diet plan like Weight Watchers will lose 5–10% of their body weight within the first six months. Sounds great, right? The problem is not with the short-term effects of dieting, but the long term effects. Studies show that 95 per cent of dieters will gain back every pound that they lose. And around two-thirds will actually gain back more. In fact, researchers at UCLA conducted an extensive investigation on the effects of dieting on the body and concluded that most people would actually be better off never having gone on a diet in the first place. 

Why getting in shape is so hard

If you really think about it, we all know how to get in shape. It’s a pretty simple formula: exercise regularly and eat more fresh produce and less processed foods. Boom! That’s all there is to it. Take a stroll down to the local library and you will find hundreds upon hundreds of books and DVD’s full of information about nutrition and exercise. 

The problem is not knowledge, it’s motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated toward an activity there are no rewards involved; we do it simply for the joy of doing it. Anything you love to do probably fits this description. Riding roller coasters, playing video games, or lying in a hammock on Waikiki would all fall under this category. On the other hand, when we are extrinsically motivated to do something it’s not the task itself we enjoy, but something that we get out of it. 

The problem with the idea of ‘getting in shape’ is that it is a result. It implies that exercising and eating healthy are things you do not because you enjoy them, but because you want to look better or lower your cholesterol. Studies show extrinsic motivators actually work very well – in the short-term. Pay your kid some pocket money to take out the rubbish and he is likely to do it. But the problem is that this extrinsic motivation will replace any intrinsic motivation he may have felt previously. Never again will he take the rubbish out on his own because it feels good to help out around the house. After a while he will start to want more cash for doing the same thing. And if you fail to provide it he will simply not take the rubbish out any longer. 

‘Getting in shape’ is an extrinsic motivator. While you are losing pounds and seeing results this will probably work fine; generally it lasts for about six months. But there will come a time when you hit a difficult plateau or when other things come up in your life that are momentarily more important than the toned abs or lower cholesterol or whatever external factor was keeping you motivated. 

The secret to achieving the healthy body you want is to stop trying to get in shape and start trying to get yourself intrinsically motivated about salubrious habits and activities. When you were a kid you probably ran around all the time just because you were playing and enjoying yourself. You weren’t trying to fit into a dress or get healthier. How can we create this type of intrinsic motivation as adults? 

Creating intrinsic motivation

In his fabulous best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink uncovers the three factors that make an activity intrinsically motivating: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Pink did not just come up with these off the top of his head; they are backed up by decades of extensive research. 


Nobody likes being told what to do. We all want to have autonomy. Companies that allow employees to make their own schedules, work from home, and even decide what they want to work on are exploding in popularity. Why? Because they are proving that people can get more done and enjoy the process to a much greater degree when they have control over what they do and how they do it. Science proves that we are less intrinsically motivated about tasks that do not allow us to exercise choice and autonomy. This is one reason why it may not be a good idea to strictly follow a diet or exercise plan, even if it was made by the greatest team of doctors and scientists in the world. Instead, you will get much better results by just deciding for yourself what works for you. 


The second antecedent for intrinsic motivation is mastery. Giving your employees all the autonomy in the world would probably not get them very excited about tying their shoes because we quickly get bored by anything that does not allow us to constantly improve. We like tasks that challenge us. We like tasks that bring out the best in us. Tying your shoes is very easy to master and, thus, will not keep us motivated for long. To get fit for life, it is important to find activities that allow you to see yourself getting better. Time yourself running a certain distance and try to beat your time next week. Bike up the same hill every day and try to make it all the way to the top without taking a break. Then set yourself a new challenge. 


OK, so what if someone gave you a difficult task to master; like learning the scientific taxonomy of African water beetles; and complete autonomy to do it however you saw fit. Would you be motivated? That this task would not get you very excited because it is pointless. We are motivated to do things when we feel they are important and meaningful. Getting in shape is not. Getting in shape  a higher purpose. Why are you doing physical activity? What about the activity itself is important to you? 

Final thoughts: A personal example

My dad loves to bicycle. Every fall he does a week-long ride called Cycle Oregon, covering 400–500 miles across some of the most picturesque portions of the state. He and some of his friends take seven days off work to make the trip and it is always a magical experience. But it is not for the faint-hearted. They know they need to be in tip-top shape to survive the gruelling climbs and blistering desert heat. So they ride together a few times a week all year. Thus, he is doing something he loves with people he enjoys spending time with and is constantly trying to improve. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Getting in shape is just a side-effect. 

Andy Earle is a research psychologist at Loyola Marymount University, where he studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviour.

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