We all have habits – good, bad, and less than desirable. Habit formation is overwhelmingly a psychological concept, because of its roots in learned behavior. In our case, going to the gym or maintaining a healthy lifestyle would be considered a learned behavior. Here are four terms that psychologists use to describe how people learn or acquire a behavior:
- Positive Reinforcement
- Negative Reinforcement
- Positive Punishment
- Negative Punishment
*Try not to think of positive & negative in terms of good & bad.*
Positive = adding something
Negative = taking something away
Reinforcement = to increase a behavior
Punishment = to decrease a behavior
Here are some health & fitness related examples of each:
- Positive Reinforcement: your coach praises you for your efforts during class & you are seeing physical results in the mirror, so you keep coming to the gym
- Negative Reinforcement: you are no longer tired or out of breath during typical daily activities (walking the dog, playing with your kids, etc.) so that increases your gym attendance
- Positive Punishment: sore muscles from a new exercise routine or comparison at the gym keeps you from coming to the gym
- Negative Punishment: the absence of weight loss keeps you from coming to the gym
It is arguably “easier” to form a habit, when we are being positively reinforced – but what happens when we receive negative punishment? Do we just stop coming to the gym – something that we know will help our bodies, as well as our minds?
Some practical advice for when that happens:
- Create your own positive reinforcement: Whatever your reason was for attending the gym in the first place, praise yourself not for the final outcome (weight loss, inc. muscle mass, health, etc.) but for taking a step in the direction of your goal. This is something that we must do consciously & intentionally. Thank yourself for being on the journey.
- Write down or make a mental note of what you are going to tell yourself when you have to combat the forms of punishment that we talked about earlier. What are you going to say to yourself when you notice someone is lifting heavier than you & you are still tired from a long day at work? Have this ready to go ahead of time, as some variation of slow results, physical comparison, and body aches will inevitably happen to all of us – myself included. I personally say, “I am here because I love being around active people, and I know I will feel better physically and mentally afterwards.”
- Some important advice that was given to me long ago was to focus on what you like, not on what you don’t like. If your favorite part about the gym is getting to catch-up with a friend, then focus on that, rather than not being able to do more push-ups. This could also be the opposite for you – you LOVE trying out new exercises, but you don’t love how another person in your session is acting. Focus on getting to do those new exercises and catching-up with that friend, and your whole perspective at the gym will change.
Did I mention you’ll be getting healthier too, because all of these things kept you at the gym?
Thinking of you as wrestle with the uncanny nature of behavioral change – you are most certainly equipped to do it.
~ Jennifer B.