Developing a passion for physical activity is critical for a long healthy life. People who get up early to run for miles, adjust their schedules to go to the gym, push themselves in exercise classes or during personal training sessions, or cycle to work every day all have one thing in common: they have learned to love what they’re doing. But what mechanisms were at play to develop that love of fitness? Why do some people love fitness and others hate to exercise? Are people taught to love or hate fitness through positive or negative reinforcement?
Research has shown that people will develop a love of fitness (or any new activity) when they have some prior knowledge of the activity and are positively reinforced during the activity. The science of cognitive behavioral change addresses the first part of the equation through the work of Dr. Albert Bandura, the Stanford University psychologist who in 1977 developed an important behavior modification model called self-efficacy. This model states that you should do the opposite of Nike’s famous “Just do it” tagline. Instead, you build self-efficacy by learning, planning, preparing, and then doing.
Bandura determined that self-efficacy is a situation-specific form of self-confidence that can be developed to give people a sense of comfort prior to engaging in a new behavior and thereby increasing their likelihood of liking it and committing to it.
For example, if you’ve never lifted weights before and begin on your own with the heaviest weights possible, you are likely to hurt yourself and never want to go back. Alternatively, you can build self-efficacy by hiring a personal trainer who encourages you, supports you, and teaches you about exercise. You might not love your first workout, but there’s a better chance you’ll stick to it and ultimately begin to enjoy fitness.
Bandura’s advice can help you prepare for and begin toward your fitness goals. The work of psychologist Dr. B. F. Skinner can help you maintain and enjoy fitness through a process called operant conditioning. Skinner discovered that there are different types of events that can take place during or after a new behavior that influences the likelihood of that behavior taking place again in the future. The most important of these, and the most relevant to fitness, is positive reinforcement. If something good happens during or immediately after exercise then you will be willing to do it again. This is why losing weight is such a bad motivator, because the reinforcement comes so much later than the activity. But having a personal trainer or class instructor praise your efforts and commend your accomplishments, no matter how big or small, during the course of the activity will motivate you to continue working hard and return again.
There are many ways to develop a love for exercise, but a key element is simply having the knowledge that it is important for a healthy and successful lifestyle. Milo’s Methods has discovered through research and experience that if you approach exercise with a positive attitude and hard work, you will learn to love it and get the results that you desire.
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