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How to Find Your Motivation for Better Health

Your personal priorities and preferences determine how you'll make real change


Tom Nolan, 71, admits he led a less-than-healthy lifestyle for years. He ate foods he shouldn’t (and too much of them), slept poorly and avoided exercise. The result showed up around his waistline. Last year, his doctor told him he needed to lose weight — a lot of weight. Yet, neither the doctor nor Nolan expected that to happen.

“He told me that I needed to lose at least 20 pounds in six months … and I told him I’d start walking around the lake by my house,” says Nolan, who lives in Aurora, Ill. “Then he said, ‘We both know you’re not going to do that.’ Well, that really ticked me off. I wasn’t about to go back to him six months later and have him say, ‘So you decided to do nothing.’ That would be embarrassing.”

That same day, Nolan received an email from his former gym, offering him a renewal membership. The combination of both factors lit a fitness fire under him. He started walking the next day, gradually working up to more than 10,000 steps a day. Later, as he built up his cardiovascular endurance, Nolan also started lifting weights at the gym. He tracked his calories on the popular app My Fitness Pal to lose weight.

Nolan says he already knew what kinds of foods to eat to get stronger and more fit — more lean protein, more vegetables and fewer carbs, but My Fitness Pal helped keep him honest. “I counted calories, and tried to stay between 1,200 and 1,500 calories a day,” he says.

Nolan lost the 20 pounds his doctor had recommended in just two months. Six months later, he’d lost a total of 35 pounds. And now, a year later, he’s down 50 pounds, with plans to lose a few more.

Better yet, he says it’s easy to maintain his new healthy eating and workout habits. “I won’t ever go back to where I was before. This has become who I am,” he says.

Motivation: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Lifestyle modification is challenging at any age, and what drives one person to change may have no impact on another. “Motivation depends on the individual; people are motivated in different ways,” says Michael C. Meyers, professor of sports science at Idaho State University in Pocatello.

“Motivation is predicated on an intrinsic or extrinsic reward system. Your prior history of success or failure, your expectations, your feelings of self-importance and your self-esteem … will all affect your motivation,” Meyers says.

Extrinsic Versus Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic rewards are outside of your control. They come from other people, like someone complimenting you on your recent weight loss or being able to buy clothing in a smaller size.

Intrinsic rewards come from inside, like attending yoga class because you enjoy the sense of calm you feel afterwards.

While extrinsic rewards may seem more appealing (who doesn’t love a compliment?), intrinsic rewards help you stick with a lifestyle change.

So even if it’s an external event that triggers you, like a health scare or an upcoming class reunion, identifying your personal priorities is critical to success. “It takes a lot more effort to stay motivated as you go on, so you want to be intrinsically motivated so you can be in control of that,” says Meyers.

Get Personal: What Motivates You?

To determine your intrinsic motivation, ask yourself questions like:

  • What is most important to me? For Nolan, it was his family. (His wife, in particular, was concerned about his health.)
  • What activities do I enjoy that I don’t currently do, or that I’d like to continue doing? (Do you love golf? Do you want to take a walking tour of Europe?)
  • How do I feel when I’m doing something positive for my health? (Proud? Confident? In control?)
  • What simple steps can I take to move in the right direction? (This could be something as minor as eating more vegetables or walking every night after dinner.)
  • How would I like to feel about my health in a month? (Three months? Six?)

Dialing into your inner motivation, and how you feel when you embrace a lifestyle change, will help you stay the course when your initial enthusiasm fades. Another effective technique is to break up one large goal — say, shedding 25 pounds — into several manageable ones, such as losing a pound a week.

“Don’t worry about being overwhelmed,” Nolan says. “When you start seeing results, use that as motivation.”

“Focus on small steps,” Meyers adds. “No. 2, be patient. And No. 3, celebrate small successes. Even a 3-pound weight loss is something to celebrate.” Those minor victories will help you develop the intrinsic motivation that turns lifestyle changes into habits that last.

Nolan says working out regularly and embracing a healthy diet have had a profound impact on him. “I feel like I’m now in the top tier of 70-year-olds, health-wise,” he says. “And one of the best benefits has been the reaction of my family. My grandson told me, ‘Gramps, your pants are too baggy! You’ve got to get new ones!’ But they’re happy for me, because I will be around longer for them.”

By Kelly K. James
Kelly K. James is a health, wellness and fitness writer and ACE-certified personal trainer based in Downers Grove, Ill.

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