In Part 2 of this series, Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track, we discuss what new science reveals about the connection between internal reasons to change and successful weight loss. 

Autonomous Motivation Leads to More Weight Loss

In 1996 a team of scientists from the Departments of Psychology and Medicine at the University of Rochester, New York wanted to investigate motivation and weight loss. The researchers found that the type of motivation the participants had significantly affected how much weight was lost.

CC0 Public Domain /Pixabay
Source: CC0 Public Domain /Pixabay

For the study, the researchers recruited 128 men and women who were severely obese. The participants attended a 6-month weight-loss program. Each participant’s motivation for why they were partaking in the program was assessed in the same way, but in far more detail, than the simple exercise we did in Part 1 of this series.

They looked at the various forms of motivation that arise internally from the self or, conversely, from external sources. Basically, how much an individual acts with volition rather than feeling pressured to act

The researchers discovered that participants whose motivation for weight loss was more autonomous (more identified or intrinsically motived): 

  • Attended the program regularly
  • Lost more weight during the program
  • And more successfully maintained weight loss at follow up

What Might a More Autonomous Reason for Weight Loss Look Like?

Consider the following scenario. A thirty-something woman has been yo-yo dieting all her life. It started in high school, then again in college, then off-and-on throughout her 20s. But each time her diet or exercise program wouldn't stick. She would lose several pounds then gain more back.

But then in her 30s she becomes a new mother and after her baby is born she wants to lose the weight. But this time, her motivation is different. While before she had wanted to lose the weight because she wanted to be skinny, now she is thinking about losing the weight to be able to run around after her baby girl. She also decides that she wants to start setting healthy examples for her child to follow. 

Now, weight loss and exercise are framed differently. While before she wanted to lose weight because she wanted to lose weight, now weight loss and exercise are motivated by her desire to be a mom and to raise her family. Her reasons for weight loss have become integrated with what she values and enjoys in life. 

Thus, participants whose reasons for weight loss were more closely integrated with their sense of self and their values, had more powerful and driving reasons for them to attend the program, which gave them a significant advantage in losing weight and being able to maintain it.

Perceived Autonomous Support

CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay
Source: CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay

In the same study, in addition to the findings just discussed, the researchers discovered something very important for any health club, weight loss clinic, wellness resort, nutritionist, doctor, or coach to know.

They found that it was not only the participants’ autonomous motivation that affected their success but also the perceived autonomy supportiveness of the environment created by the health-care staff. Basically, did the staff promote choice and let the individuals develop their own health goals and accept the regulation for change as their own.

“Health professionals are encouraged to help participants make the transition from should to want to motivation.”― Teixeira et al.

The more the staff supported identified and intrinsic reasons for change, the more likely participants stayed in the program. As the authors of the study wrote:

“It suggests that the interpersonal climate created by the health care staff of a weight loss program will influence the relative autonomy of patients’ motivation, which in turn predicted higher attendance and improved weight loss.”

If autonomous motivation from participants and the health-care setting makes or breaks the success of a weight loss program, scientists wondered if they would be able to boost participants' identified and intrinsic motivation to help their weight loss and maintenance be more effective.

As it turns out, boosting these types of motivation had shocking effects.  

Long Lasting Weight-Loss 

Between 2005 and 2007, Pedro Teixeira and his team at the Technical University of Lisbon partnered with researchers from the University of Wales. Their goal was to study long-lasting weight-loss management to understand why some people are successful while so many others are not.

For the study, the intervention consisted of a one-year behavior program for over 200 overweight and moderately obese women aged 25 to 50.The participants received either an intervention focused on promoting identified and intrinsic sources of motivation, or a general health education program, which was the control group.

The objective was to promote long-term weight loss and sustained motivation by promoting the sense of volition and choice in the following ways:

  • Provide participants with a menu of options
  • Encourage participants to find the activities they enjoyed the most
  • Direct activities towards prompting fun, enjoyment, reaching new goals

After 12 months, Teixeira and his team found that

Increasing identified and intrinsic forms of motivation predicted weight loss maintenance for 3 years.

Their findings confirmed the results of a similar study conducted with American women who were given a 4-month lifestyle weight-control intervention.

In that study, the scientists found that changes in intrinsic motivation—that is increases in enjoyment and interest—to be the best predictor of 16-month weight changes. Intrinsic motivation even explained some of the long-term effects of the intervention on weight control over and above changes in eating-related behaviors.

These groundbreaking findings have shown that what plays a central role in the maintenance of exercise and physical activity behaviors are:

  • Enjoyment
  • Perception of competence
  • And intrinsic reasons for weight loss

Intrinsic Motivation and Improved Eating Habits 

CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay
Source: CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay

Study after study from researchers around the world has discovered how powerful intrinsic goals and reasons for change can be. For instance, other studies have shown how identified and intrinsic motivation for eating is associated with healthier eating patterns.

In one study, participants were more likely to eat a significantly healthier diet of less fat and cholesterol and more fruits and vegetables if they tended to agree more with the following items: 

  • Eating healthy is part of the way I have chosen to live my life
  • It is fun to create meals that are good for my health
  • Eating healthy is congruent with other important aspects of my life
  • Eating healthy is a way to ensure long-term health benefits

As we have seen from the research, intrinsic forms of motivation are important to adhere to any long-term health behavior.

The next question is, naturally, how do we tap into our own sources of internal motivation?

In Weight Loss Motivation: Secrets to Staying on Track, Part 3, the final part in this series, we cover how to find your intrinsic motivation to make your health journey not only successful but also enjoyable.

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.​

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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