A few years ago, after I had spoken at an exercise motivation seminar, a very tense woman took me aside.
“I’m Kate,” she said. “I really don’t know why I’m here.”
“I’ve been trying to lose weight for years,” she said, “for years. Nothing helps. I know I should start running, but I’ve tried it and I hate it. I hate everything about it. My feet hurt. My body jiggles. I don’t see how anyone could keep this up.”
Kate’s hatred of running was palpable; it poured off her in waves.
But before I could ask if she had considered, say, walking instead of running, or explored why she was so convinced that she should run to lose weight, she turned and walked away.
Recently, the same woman approached me after a book talk.
“Remember me? I’m Kate, the woman who hates running? Well, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I just wanted to tell you I finished a five K last week and I love running.”
She certainly looked a lot happier and more relaxed. In fact, it took me a moment to realize that this was the same woman.
“Wow,” I replied. “What changed?” I was very curious about this huge turnaround.
“It was kind of an accident,” she explained.
“My husband and I were having a really hard time, arguing a lot, and I was so stressed I thought I would explode. I couldn’t figure out how to get this anger out of me. One day, out of desperation, I ran out of the house to escape. That’s all I could think of doing—and after a few minutes, I noticed that some of that toxic energy was gone.”
She continued, “I stopped after about five minutes and I felt a lot better, more grounded. To be honest, I was embarrassed to admit even to myself that running made me feel better, but I couldn’t deny it. I woke up the next morning wanting to put on my shoes and run, so I did.”
“And for the first time in my life, I felt like, I’m running for me.” She smiled.
“It looks like running had quite an effect on you,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m a lot happier, and I have so much more energy. It didn’t save my marriage, but it did let us talk like adults, and it let me feel good about myself for the first time in a long time. So what do you think? Am I nuts?”
“The opposite,” I told. “You’ve discovered your personal Right Why for running: because you enjoy it, you choose to do it, and it makes you feel good. Basically, you converted running from a chore you thought you should do into running as a gift you want to give yourself again and again.”
The Right Why
Kate was now guided to physical movement by real specific needs like stress and anger reduction. Discovering that running helped her feel better and fuel resilience rather than obligation changed everything for her.
I’m not advocating anyone else run (I’m a very happy walker myself!), but her story underscores a basic finding in research that is fundamental to my approach: Our Why for starting a new behavior—the motivating purpose and reason that drives us—has a huge influence on whether or not we stick with it long-term.
Kat’s story also reflected something my colleagues and I found in one of our studies about autonomous versus controlling types motivation: Participants whose Whys for exercise were related to weight loss or health reported less autonomous motivation, the type that guides lasting behavior change, than those whose Whys were targeted at reducing stress or enhancing overall well-being.
It may seem odd that the very reasonable motivations of losing weight, if we are overweight, or improving our health aren’t enough to keep us moving. In part, that’s because these Wrong Whys are based on vague promises of future benefits, and our brains are hardwired to respond to what makes us feel good now.
Right Whys motivate us because they are relevant to enhancing our daily lives in terms of how we feel and function. Compared to the Wrong Whys, which leave us feeling depleted, Right Whys energize and empower us. When we choose the Right Whys for physical activity, we create our own renewable high-quality fuel inside that enables us to tackle all of the tasks and responsibilities of our rich and active lives.
Strategies for Finding Our Right Why
The best reason making physical movement a part of daily life is the one that is compelling and joyful right now.
Here are three key strategies we can use to identify our personal Right Why:
1. Think of a benefit you’d like: Physical movement can enhance health and fitness, but it can also bring changes we feel immediately: mood, sleep, life satisfaction, productivity, sex life, problem solving, mental acuity, strength for daily activities, self-worth, and more.
Choose one, and observe how even just a small increase in physical activity affects this aspect of your life. Personally, I credit my daily walks with bringing me something of real value in my life: enthusiasm to take on the day!
2. Do what you enjoy: Kate hated running, so it’s no wonder she resisted it for so long. If she had spoken to me a little longer that first time, I would have suggested that she choose a physical activity that brought her joy.
Walking, dancing, biking, strolling, yoga, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator are all options.
But with her new Right Why for running—Kate radicalized her relationship with it. But any opportunity to move counts, so our task is to identify what types of activities we enjoy and/or feel good. (See my worksheets in my book, No Sweat, to help you identify these activities.)
Aim for consistency, not perfection:
Trying to incorporate an entirely new way approach to physical movement overnight virtually ensures failure.
Let’s face it—life is busy, schedules change, things happen to derail our best plans.
Rather than aiming for thirty or forty minutes of exercise every day, for example, begin by adding five or ten minutes of physical activity whenever the opportunity presents. Even starting with one minute a day—say, getting up from our work and walking around the office or house at a certain time—will help with starting to make physical activity an integral part of our hectic lives.
3. Learn with a friend:
This idea is a whole new way of being physically active. Why not find someone in your life, a friend, colleague, relative, or neighbor who would like to learn how to sustain a more joyful physically active life and work on learning these new attitudes and strategies together? Not only will you be able to help each other problem solve the challenges that arise, by talking together about these ideas you’ll further internalize them into your sense of self and life.
Author: Michelle Segar, PhD
Apprentice Editor: Jessica Chardoulias / Editor: Renée Picard