As a fitness professional, you are probably extremely motivated to exercise and a passionate advocate of physical activity — and then you hit a wall with clients who just don’t seem to respond to your excitement about exercise. It can be tempting to suggest an activity tracker or wearable — their use in corporate well-being programs is booming, they show promise for creating more efficient and patient-centered health care, and continued technological innovation and societal change will likely keep them around for a long time.
But they don’t work for everybody. In fact, no new innovative technology, activity tracker, or other tool has the power to drive lasting motivation to move for most people. The novelty of a new tool and this type of quantified feedback tends to quickly wear off for those not inherently enchanted by numbers and graphs. And there is a sound scientific reason for this: it is people’s relationship with physical activity that determines whether or not they will stay motivated.
Fortunately, there is a way to use fitness apps and wearables as allies in staying motivated.
You will be much more successful helping your clients stay motivated by helping them understand that trackers plus movement can help them
- become mindful of the immediate positivity that moving brings, and
- internalize the concrete value consistent physical activity delivers to their sense of self and daily lives.
For individuals and professionals who are excited about the possibilities of tracking apps and wearables, ally with an app takes a synergistic approach and combines tracking with the three proven motivation generators: the Why, the Way, and the Do.
THE TRUTH ABOUT MOTIVATION
Even though your clients have engaged you as a fitness and health professional, their passions and priorities may not actually include getting fit or even healthy. They may have started a fitness program for reasons outside themselves — on their doctor’s advice, or because friends and family urged them, or because they think they “should.” Science and experience agree on this crucial fact: the best way to help clients catch your enthusiasm about physical activity is to begin by understanding what matters most to them.
Your goal as a professional is to help clients identify what will make physical activity and movement personally compelling and sufficiently positive and relevant to their daily lives — because this is the spark that will light the fire of their internal motivation and keep it lit. Although it seems counterintuitive, short-term weight loss and abstract health goals set most people up to fail because they do not make physical activity sufficiently relevant and compelling to beat out people’s other urgent daily goals and roles. And tracking apps alone are likely vulnerable to many of these weaknesses. Fitness professionals may find more success by leveraging what we know about human nature: people like having positive experiences and feeling ownership over their behaviors.
Professionals can help spark and sustain client motivation by using three core motivation generators that I call WHY-WAY-DO:
- Why: Harness your client’s values (their “identified motivation”) — help them appreciate the specific ways in which moving benefits their daily life.
- Way: Give your client permission to select physical activities that generate immediate positive experiences (i.e., “intrinsic motivation”) — help them identify what feels good or is fun for them and know it’s okay to enjoy that feeling.
- Do: Encourage your client to build a learning mindset — help them understand that physical activity isn’t a one-time target, but is a life-long journey where “competence” for being active and overcoming barriers to plans can be learned.
These three elements are a team: they work together synergistically to optimally motivate physical activity participation (1).
The WHY-WAY-DO approach not only aligns with key motivational science, but it also reflects accepted principles about consumer behavior inside and outside of the fitness industry (2). Marketing guru Seth Godin says that if you want to motivate people to strive for a future-oriented goal, you actually need to figure out how to convert it into “how it feels right now” (3). Organizations are starting to use these science-based ideas to build online activity tracking combined with Web platforms to enhance engagement and retention by asking participants to discover their “Right Whys” (4).
Regardless of whether we are messaging about physical activity, using tracking tools, or verbally coaching our clients, my trainings teach my professional students that they can spark a love of physical activity and cultivate high-quality motivation and competence by addressing these three core scientifically supported motivation generators and allying them with trackers to support motivation over the long term.
MOTIVATION GENERATOR 1: WHY
Science across areas suggests that the quality of motivation is the result of an individual’s primary purpose or motive for becoming more physically active: their “why.” People’s “why” for being physically active — because it energizes me, because it helps me be more productive — imbues it with a specific meaning and purpose in their lives.
In fact, research out of the University of Pennsylvania found that people who engage in self-transcendence tasks (thinking about others rather than themselves) before viewing healthy messages actually made them more receptive to those messages (5).
Are people more likely to keep doing something that they know will make today’s tasks easier to perform or something that might give them an extra year of life in 30 years? Research suggests that a why that aims to help people boost immediate well-being is, in general, more motivating than a why that aims to achieve a vague future outcome (like weight loss or better health). Feeling better immediately from physical activity makes its specific value and relevance to daily life very clear, especially when compared with hoped-for benefits that might never arrive.
Finding the Why: Help guide your client to whys that will be more likely to set them up for long-term success. Some questions to ask: Will exercise give you more energy to care for your family? To finish your work?
Ally with the App: Make sure your review of their weekly physical activity through their apps includes a discussion about the ways in which moving helps contribute toward what matters to them most.
MOTIVATION GENERATOR 2: WAY
Our immediate experience from doing any behavior (Does it make us feel great? Does it make us feel angry?) strongly influences whether we desire to do it again. Although some people do enjoy working hard and breaking a sweat, in general, displeasure increases from high-intensity movement, especially among people who do not actually like exercising at high intensities (6). Because, as a population, we have generally (and unfortunately) learned to believe that high-intensity exercise is the only type of movement that counts and is worth doing, it is crucial that fitness professionals reeducate people about the value of all levels of intensity and all types of movement.
Finding the WAY: If your client is dragging into your session and begrudging the time spent there, they probably experience exercise as punishment. Some questions to ask: How do you feel right now? It’s important that you and your clients know that how people feel while they are exercising predicts whether they’ll stick with it (not how they feel afterwards). It might be counter-intuitive but having positive experiences during exercise is among the most powerful motivators of lasting motivation.
Ally with the App: Ask your clients/patients to track how they feel when they move and when they don’t. Linking these two things together is crucial for cultivating a desire to keep moving.
MOTIVATION GENERATOR 3: DO
Sustained motivation also is a result of successfully foreseeing and dealing with the inevitable conflicts between activity plans and life, and generally feeling more competent when it comes to physical activity. This is accomplished with a subtle but powerful shift in mindset: having a learning mindset, which focuses on learning instead of achieving.
Help clients stop aiming to achieve perfection (a specific amount of weight lost, minutes on the elliptical, etc.) with their physical activity and start thinking about it as a continuum of success on which they are constantly learning and adjusting. Research shows that a more flexible “learning mindset” (“I will learn and master the process of fitting consistent physical activity into my week”) is considered to be more motivational than a more rigid achievement mindset (“I will be active every day this week for 30 minutes!”) (7). Flexibility is a more optimal self-management strategy than rigid strategies/plans when it comes to making changes related to physical activity and diets.
Finding the DO: Toss out the need for inflexible goals and perfection. Instead, help clients understand that they will be most successful if they start with the end in mind: feeling and living better from regular physical activity and integrating it into their lives for a lifetime. Encourage them to view challenges to their planned workouts as opportunities to learn, not as setbacks or failures.
Ally with the App: Encourage clients to start small by setting realistic weekly plans, ones that they can succeed with. Use tracking to better understand if these goals are reasonable or not and encourage them to “flex” their weekly plans and goals as the need arises.
For more details about how to use these motivation-generating methods in your work, visit https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2017/07000/ACTIVITY_TRACKING___MOTIVATION_SCIENCE__Allies_to.6.aspx to read the original feature article published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal®.
1. Segar ML. No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness
. New York (NY): Amacom; 2015.
2. Pham MT, Geuens M, De Pelsmacker P. The influence of ad-evoked feelings on brand evaluations: empirical generalizations from consumer responses to more than 1000 TV commercials. Inter J Res Marketing
3. Godin S. It’s Almost Impossible to Sell the Future [Internet]. [cited 2017 February 6]. Available from: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2017/02/its-almost-impossible-to-sell-the-future.html
4. WELCOA. On the Move. [Internet]. [cited 2017 February 6]. Available from: https://www.welcoa.org/about/on-the-move-initiative/
5. Kang Y, Cooper N, Pandey P, et al. Effects of self-transcendence on neural responses to persuasive messages and health behavior change. PNAS
. 2018;115(40):9974–9. published ahead of print September 17, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073
6. Ekkekakis P, Hargreaves EA, Parfitt G. Invited guest editorial: envisioning the next fifty years of research on the exercise–affect relationship. Psychol Sport Exerc
7. Latham GP, Locke EA. New developments in and directions for goal-setting research. Eur Psychol