Many of us struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We are often painfully aware of our shortcomings when attempting to follow a nutritious diet, exercise regularly, or curtail our vices. Even if we were to limit our objectives to "Do the things we know we should do and don’t do the things we know we shouldn’t do," most of us would still waver in our pursuit of health. At the individual level, motivation is key.
This post highlights the S.T.R.E.N.G.T.H that is needed with eight ways to help motivate yourself to be healthy.
1. Self-determination: Do it your way. Self-determination theory has been used to explain motivation in maintaining healthy habits. Autonomy is central to this framework of behavior change, which highlights the importance of feeling control over one’s experiences. Feeling empowered to make our own choices ascribes value to our health decisions. In a world where we are constantly bombarded by snippets of other people’s lives, it can be easy to feel that we are missing out on a myriad of experiences.
The range of possible experiences you could have is endless, but you’ll miss out on nearly all of them. Having autonomy over your choices to select the healthy experiences you want is precisely what gives them meaning. So however you choose to be healthy, ensure you do it your way.
2. Technique: Do it well. Once you’ve decided on your way to being healthy, start getting good at it. In the Handbook of Competence and Motivation, Elliot and Dweck suggest that competence is an inherent psychological need for all of us. The desire to become effective and capable can be a driving force in promoting health.
You may choose to sharpen your culinary skills, develop expertise in your favorite sport, or strengthen your self-discipline. Whatever your approach, enhancing your technique in pursuing competence can help you stay motivated. The better you become at being healthy, the more you’ll want to stick to it.
3. Relatedness: Do it together. Feeling close to and valued by others is vital for maintaining your motivation to be healthy. Social relatedness in pursuing a healthy lifestyle can come in many forms. For example, a Danish study of patients with Type 2 Diabetes found that sustainable progress after a health intervention was enhanced by supportive communities, such as belonging to an exercise group or continual peer support.
Other studies have also shown that peer or familial support can increase physical activity and fruit and vegetable intake. Choosing to exercise with friends, sharing your meal plans with family, or seeking positive support can help you stay motivated.
4. External awareness: Understand your circumstances. Being aware of your environment and personal circumstances can help you stay grounded in your health expectations. It is important to note that, despite highlighting the importance of autonomy, some aspects of health remain out of your control. Most of us can’t simply change where we live or work to maximize our health. The range of possible health outcomes we will experience is tied to the limits of our genes and past experiences, and the political and environmental changes around us.
You’re almost certainly not going to win the highly coveted healthiest human award. That said, if you can make the most of the existential cards you were dealt, you may be in the running for the equally prestigious "Best version of you" category.
5. Novelty: Mix it up. The initial enthusiasm you feel for any activity will inevitably fade away. This is not to say that your overall motivation to stay healthy should also dimmish. Looking for creative tweaks to shake up your food and exercise routines can prevent things from going stale. This might be as simple as inviting a friend to join your workout or buying your groceries from a different store. The internet is a boundless source of quirky new twists for even the most basic healthy pursuits.
6. Goal setting: Set clear, controllable, intrinsically rewarding goals. How you set your goals is likely to determine whether or not you can achieve them. Research into motivation and reward mechanisms suggests we should focus more on positively framed goals rather than striving to avoid negative outcomes. Goals should be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is when you act for the inherent enjoyment of what you are doing.
Choose to pursue the exercise that brings you the most enjoyment, and choose the foods that make you feel good (not just in the moment). Sometimes your pursuit of a goal may involve temporarily unpleasant activities, like the final 10 minutes of your workout. But aligning your choices with intrinsically motivated goals (such as the goal to feel vibrant and energized) is more likely to bring sustainable success than externally driven goals (such as seeking the approval of others).
7. Tenacity: Be tenacious. Angela Duckworth’s work on grit emphasizes consistency of interest and perseverance of effort as key ingredients to success. This encapsulates "tenacity," the persistence in maintaining or seeking something valued or desired. This quality has been associated with successful aging by predicting higher energy and general health measures as we get older. There will undoubtedly be times when the world feels against us, and we are tempted to abandon our goals. Fostering the ability to be tenacious in our pursuit of health can help us weather the storm.
8. Honesty: Be truthful about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what you’d like to achieve. There is indeed an objective reality to the state of our health. However, our experiences of health are often driven by the stories we tell ourselves. Whether we bury our heads in the sand or blame bad luck to justify our inaction. Whatever we tell ourselves, we are the authors, protagonists, narrators, and readers of our own health stories.
If we are honest about our experiences, our efforts in the present, and our hopes for the future, we stand a better chance of sticking to tasks in the pursuit of a healthy life.