We know from personal experience that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving health. We also know this from science.

A recent meta-analysis study in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at different weight loss plans and found no significant difference between the success of one program versus another. It came down to the individual’s motivation to stay with the program that made all the difference.

The question isn’t which diet or fitness plan is the best. It is really what is the best program for you, so that you can stick with it and make lifestyle changes.

In this 3-part series, Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track, we discuss how who you are as an individual is one of the most important factors when deciding what makes a weight-loss program, diet, or exercise regimen successful.

Alex Shalamov/Shutterstock
Source: Alex Shalamov/Shutterstock

What most articles on exercise or weight loss do not cover is the power of working from one’s own personality, unique style, and what is important to the individual.

These psychological factors are a huge set of resources that can make all the difference in your health journey. They provide you with intrinsic motivation, doing something because you are interested in it, value it, and enjoy doing it. And as new science tells us, it makes all of the difference between just dieting versus successful weight loss and maintenance. 

But before we discuss what the latest research reveals about motivation, let’s explore why we are stuck in the dark ages of motivating healthy behavior.

The Old and Flawed Way of Motivating Weight Loss

Consider the following quote from our wise buddy Mark Twain and tell me how much his statement rings true.

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.”― Mark Twain

In all honesty, this view sounds correct. After all, Mark Twain said it. And he seems to know his stuff. However, scientific research tells us that the opposite is true.

Twain’s statement represents the traditional approach to dieting and fitness—that to lose weight is to be miserable.

We diet. We exercise. We might even lose weight, but we turn into woeful, glum little souls, so we don’t keep up the diet. We tell ourselves, or worse, we hear from others—friends, family, teachers, doctors, coworkers—that you're just not motivated.

But we have been operating on this faulty logic far too long. Thankfully, research at the intersection of medicine, psychology, and weight loss management has emerged to disabuse us of our flawed and destructive way of thinking.

Research in the field of psychology in self-determination theory has shown that the type of motivation is more important than the amount of motivation when pursuing a weight-loss goal. 

What Type of Motivation Do You Have?

Below you see four different responses to the following prompt:

I am losing weight because…

  1. I feel like I have no choice; others make me do it
  2. I would feel bad about myself if I did not
  3. It feels important to me personally to accomplish this goal
  4. It is a challenge to accomplish my goal; because it is fun

Now, choose the answer that sounds most like you.

Let's look again at the responses, this time with the names of each type of motivation and the characteristics of the motivation written below.[i] The 4 types of motivation are external, introjected, identified, or intrinsic.

Which type of motivation did you have?

I am losing weight because…

  1. I feel like I have no choice; others make me do it: External motivation [Losing weight is not entirely your decision. You feel that you have to do this because someone, like your partner or your doctor, insisted. You are driven by either rewards or punishment.]
  2. I would feel bad about myself if I did not. Introjected motivation [Your reason to lose weight is only partially endorsed by you. Although you have chosen to lose weight, you are doing it to avoid feeling guilt or your ego is involved.]
  3. It feels important to me personally to accomplish this goal. Identified motivation [You decided to lose weight because it is valued by you. You have a positive view of your choice to lose weight.]
  4. It is a challenge to accomplish my goal; because it is fun. Intrinsic motivation [Your motive to be healthy is done for its own sake because you value being healthy. You eat healthy and engage in some sort of physical activity for the pleasure of the activity.]
gratisography.com/Pexels
Source: gratisography.com/Pexels

According to self-determination theory, different kinds of motivation underlie our behavior and each type falls along a continuum in the following order from least to most autonomous: from external, introjected, identified, to intrinsic.

A more autonomous motivation is one that is self-regulated and promotes choice and individual initiative.The most autonomous form of motivation is intrinsic motivation.

Just think about Mark Twain’s quote and where he falls on the continuum.

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.”― Mark Twain

Twain would probably be checking off either answer 1 or 2: external or introjected motivation. He definitely does not find any enjoyment in pursuing health, so he is staying far from intrinsic motivation.

External and Introjected Motivation

Answers 1 and 2 represent the types of motivation that emanate from external reasons to change, like what others or society think you should look like. These behaviors are experienced as pressured or coerced by some external force.

External motivation works on external demands and operates on the contingency of if/then:

If I lose 10 pounds, then I will go to my 15 year high school reunion.

This motivation is purely external to your interest in losing weight. It is done in order to obtain a reward or avoid a negative consequence.

An interesting example of external motivation is the competition that takes place in Dubai where parents and children are rewarded in gold—yes gold—for losing weight and adopting a healthy lifestyle.

CC0 License/pixabay.com
Source: CC0 License/pixabay.com

Individual participants receive one gram of gold per kilogram they lose (about 2.2 pounds) and a family gets double that, two grams of gold for each kilo. Kind of makes you want to eat a bathtub of cookie dough and move to Dubai, right?

If the participants are losing weight merely for the reward in gold, then their motivation is purely external. You might have heard of the carrot and stick forms of motivation. Well this is the karat form.

Introjected motivation is also motivated by external reasons to change. But it differs from external motivation in that it is done for somewhat internal reasons as well.

The problem, however, is that these internal reasons are negatively focused. They come from feelings of guilt or shame.

Identified and Intrinsic Motivation

Answers 3 and 4 are two forms of internal reasons for losing weight. Research has shown that these types of motivation are internally driven, meaning you feel that you have real choices and the origin of your decision comes from you.

Identified motivation is when you have a positive view of losing weight or it is a behavior that you value. Maybe you want to be healthy for a loved one and your future together. For identified motivation there is a strong sense of personal importance and meaningfulness in the task.

Intrinsic motivation is the prototype of self-determination because the behavior is engaged for its own sake, for the simple pleasure and interest in the activity. This motivation involves a focus on the task and produces energizing emotions such as interest, enjoyment, and challenge.

Study after study is showing just how crucial identified and intrinsic motivation is to the efficacy and maintenance of a weight loss or exercise program. Find out what the latest research reveals in Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track, Part 2.

Adoree Durayappah-Harrison, M.Div., M.A.P.P., M.B.A., is a writer on health and psychological well-being. Learn more at AdoreeDurayappah.com.

Note:

[i] These prompts are examples from the Treatment Self-Regulation Questionnaire (TSQR) as seen in Perceived locus of causality and internalization: Examining reasons for acting in two domains

About the Author

Adoree Durayappah

Adoree Durayappah-Harrison is a graduate of three masters programs, one in Applied Positive Psychology from UPENN, another in Buddhist practices from Harvard.

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