What's in it for you? (How your reward system is undermining your fitness goals.)


What it’s in it for you?“We all come into this world the same: naked, scared, and ignorant. After that grand entrance, the life we end up with is simply an accumulation of the choices we make.” - Darren Hardy

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” -John C. Maxwell

Routines, aka Habits, are clearly instrumental in what becomes of our lives, yet most of us struggle mightily to break old “bad” habits or to create new “positive” habits.  There are a number of reasons why this can be difficult, but today I want to focus on one in particular, our reward system, and how it often undermines our fitness goals.

In his book “Hooked,” Nir Eyal discusses 4 stages of the habit loop and how they dictate our success when trying to create a new habit:

1. Trigger

2. Action

3. Reward

4. Investment #1)  Trigger - this is the moment that starts the whole process in motion.  For example, I vividly remember trying to squeeze into my suit for Easter a couple years ago and how intensely uncomfortable I felt.  This “triggered” me to take action…

#2)  Action - In this case, the appropriate action I felt was working out again and eating clean again.  This is done in the hopes of receiving a reward.

#3)  Reward - this is VITAL to turn a single action into a repetitive action, or a habit.  In this case I, and many others I think, get started focusing on the reward of being “in shape” - fit, lean, etc.  Basically, the end result of weight loss and all the perceived benefits that will be associated with it - looking and feeling better.

#4)  Investment.  (we’ll save this for another day)


Ok, so here’s the rub.  Say we start on a Monday.  That afternoon after work we go to workout and really bust our butt.  Then, after that, we are still so motivated that we go home and make an entire weeks worth of broccoli, grilled chicken and rice - GO US!  Tuesday, we’re a little sore, but it feels good.  Like we did something!  Back to the gym again that night - feeling great!  Ditto Wednesday.  By Thursday we are starting to drag a little bit, but we’re committed, so we fight through it!  Then Friday morning we wake up, sore, tired and grumpy, but we aren’t going to let that stop us - we hit the gym after work again!  We are SO proud of all the hard work we put in this week that we’ve earned a happy hour with some friends!  Time to celebrate!

Ok, week 1 is in the books!  Saturday morning - time to check the scale.

“UHG! Seriously!?”

“-1/2 lb???  That’s it?  All this hard work, all that discipline, all that willpower, and that’s all I get out of it?”  The only thing that’s changed in how we feel is that every muscle in our body hurts!  This isn’t what I signed up for…


2 issues here:

1)  Our long term reward that we are seeking doesn’t offer rapid enough positive reinforcement to help us easily turn the behavior of working out into a habit.  That’s why it takes so much discipline and willpower to successfully do so for most people.  We need a more rapid rewards system to easily turn this into a habit.

2)  Unfortunately, it seems like virtually every form of celebration and reward in today's society (at least in this country) revolves around consuming calories.  In fact, social psychologist have created the term Moral Licensing (also know as Self Licensing) to describe how this can become a slippery, self defeating slope.  According to Wikipedia, “…In simple terms, self-licensing occurs when people allow themselves to indulge after doing something positive first; for example, drinking a diet soda with a cheeseburger can lead one to subconsciously discount the negative attributes of the meal’s high caloric and cholesterol content.”  Ever had this conversation with yourself: “Well I worked out x days this week, so I’ve earned _____  (enter food or drink here)?”

Now I’m not trying to say that we have to be perfect every minute of every day for the rest of our lives.  I am just making the argument, that we need to come up with more helpful and appropriate reward systems for ourselves that help us to build the habit of working out, AND that doesn’t undermine the long term goals that we have that got us started working out in the first place.



Well, from my experience the most common reward system for people who are successful at building this habit long term and achieving / maintaining weight loss (or other body transformations) are those that actually find ways to enjoy the PROCESS itself.  In other words, they find a way to make the workout and exercise a reward in and of itself.  Luckily there are some facts and strategies that can help with this if you aren’t currently there yet:

Fact: Our bodies are set up to reward us for exercise even in the short term.  It may not always feel this way, especially if we haven't worked out regularly in a long time (or ever), but exercising causes our body to release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.  And as the Huffington Post puts it, “Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins are the quartet responsible for our happiness.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thai-nguyen/hacking-into-your-happy-c_b_6007660.html   You aren’t the exception.


So what if you aren’t currently feeling much of a “reward” from working out? 


  • How we communicate with ourselves could be crossing some wires.

    • Be mindful of your thoughts. What’s your story? Are you telling yourself that you don’t like working out, never have and never will? Well can you really know that this is true? (refer to our last email on how to work past our mental blocks - if you missed it, just let me know and I can resend it to you)

    • Control your focus. If we spend all day thinking about how we don’t feel like working out and how hard it’s going to be and how we’d rather skip it, it’s going to snow ball and make it much more difficult TO enjoy it. Self-fulfilling prophecy. We may not be able to control our THOUGHTS per se, but we can control our focus. And what we focus on becomes what we experience. Negative thought pops up, that’s ok. Just don’t spend all day focusing on it. Choose to turn your attention to the parts of your workout that you might enjoy.

  • Find something you enjoy. Remember that we are building a life long habit here. Do you really think you are going to do something you HATE everyday for the rest of your life? Again, be mindful of your story here. You’ll be surprised by how many things you’ll be able to enjoy when you eliminate unhelpful scripts and you just open yourself up to the possibility that you could enjoy it and really give it a shot.

    • Some ideas for making your workout fun:

      • Do something new. Doing the same thing everyday can become boring. Boring typically doesn’t equal fun.

      • Get outside occasionally. Weather prohibits this at times and frankly the equipment you find in your gym is going to not only help keep things fresh, but also help to speed up results, but getting outside occasionally can be a lot of fun. Go for a walk, ride a bike, hike, run, play basketball, etc.

      • Compete (with yourself). Keep track of your workouts and push yourself to beat your personal bests.

      • Do something in a group setting. This allows us a number of different angles to enjoy:

        1. Compete (with others). Some people just like to compete and win and this is a healthy place to do it.

        2. Get a workout partner. Some people really enjoy being social and in this setting you get your workout time and social time wrapped up in one.

        3. Get a trainer. This can allow for some of the social aspect of a workout partner, but also can introduce more variety to keep things fresh. Also, allows for a sense of certainty that what you are doing will help you to achieve your long term results, which can also make the process feel better.

        4. Make new friends that already have the habit. First off, this is one way to find that workout partner and/or someone too compete with. Secondly though, we really have to be cognizant of our social circle. It is often said that we become the average of the 5 peers that we spend the most time around. If no one in your social network works out at all and their celebrations/ reward systems are built around calories, you are going to have more trouble. I’m not saying you have to totally drop your current friends, but getting them to embark on this path as well would help. Making new friends that are further along the fitness path will help as well. Especially people that have celebration and reward habits that don’t revolve exclusively around food and drink

      • Be patient. When we are first starting out and are “de-conditioned” (aka out of shape) this whole process may not feel quite as good as it will. Be patient though and you’ll get there.

      • Find even more rewards that align with your goals!

        1. While working out for it’s own sake is a very common and very successful reward system to build the long term habit, it’s not the only one. For example:

          1. Movie night

          2. Set up financial rewards

          3. Non-calorie related activities with friends

          4. What other ideas do you have??

You can do this - follow these steps and let me know how it's helping you progress along your journey to a more healthier lifestyle!  Remember - have faith and work through these suggestions to get you there - you'll be more thankful and happier in the end than you can ever imagine!

For any additional advice, comments, etc, please leave a comment below or email me @ mdane@compelfitness.com.


Matt Dane