Friday, February 12, 2010

Why the Biggest Loser Doesn’t Work - how to motivate yourself to become a runner

The concept of the Biggest Loser is simple – take morbidly obese people and offer them a monetary incentive to lose weight. These are often people that have struggled with their weight for a whole lifetime, years of guilt and new diets and ignoring the scale and losing ten pounds only to gain twenty more. Years of failure at what, at first glance, seems like the simplest of tasks – eat less and move more.

In his speech at the TED conference, career analyst Dan Pink offers some insight as to why the traditional “carrot and stick” types of motivation that employers, parents, schools and people struggling to make a change in their lives so often use to change behavior SIMPLY DO NOT WORK.

Pink states that research has proven that offering monetary incentives for simple tasks does work. If the task is straightforward and requires no creative thought, we can focus on doing it faster in order to maximize our profit. But, when the task requires creative thought, offering a traditional carrot or stick incentive most often leads to poor performance. If problem solving is required to achieve the goal, offering a carrot or threatening with a stick will shut down the ability to find new innovative solutions, literally working AGAINST the goal of improved performance.

What is the alternative? Pink offers three themes that motivate creative thinking in the new approach to increasing performance – autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy, or the possibility of being able to try new solutions to the problem encourages creative problem solving. Mastery, or developing the ability to become better and better at the skill, will also motivate. Having a Purpose – seeing how the task will be of service to more than just one person, provides another potent reason to persevere and find a solution.

Why does the Biggest Loser produce so many success stories when its concept is ‘lose weight for money?’ Lifestyle change is not a simple task that can be motivated by carrots and sticks. It is at its core a task that calls for creative problem solving. Losing weight and becoming fit is not just the simple task of eating less and moving more. We are human beings, not machines, and weight loss and the process of becoming an athlete involves finding new, creative ways to deal with problems and emotions that used to be mollified with food consumption. Becoming an athlete is a process that comes with setbacks, pain, injury, disappointment and sacrifice. It is how the athlete handles these setbacks that will determine whether fitness becomes a part of their lifestyle or just one more instance of giving up when the going gets tough.

The answer is that, though the winners are lured to begin their weight loss by a monetary carrot, they find deeper and more meaningful reasons to continue their journey while at the ranch. They become empowered by autonomy, learn to enjoy their bodies and develop mastery by watching their improvements in the gym and on the scale, and find a greater purpose than just the prize money for transforming their lives.

This process often happens with beginning athletes as well. When I first started running again at 34 years old, I wanted to keep in shape, but it wasn’t until I saw myself as a ‘Runner’ that my running started to really improve. Running does not have a clear set of rules and simple solutions for typical problems. Do I skip a workout if I am tired? Do I get up before the sun rises to get in a workout when I will have an especially busy day at work? Do I stop running permanently if I am faced, once again, with months of physical therapy for a reoccurring injury? What training plan do I use? What races should I enter? What distance should I race?

My cyclist friend Mike Foley had a similar experience. Mike admits that, initially, there were some ‘carrots’ in cycling. He wanted to lose weight, rehabilitate his knee, and improve his health. He found that these ‘carrots’ did not work as motivation. He needed higher cycling purposes to drive him and made the commitment to train for and complete a century, become a USCF road racer, finish 'same time' in a criterium, ride 550 miles in a week. To do this, Mike says, he needed to develop mastery of the sport, and worked on skills like pacelining, packriding, climbing, endurance, sprinting, and proper nutrition. He has found that mastering those skills now motivates him.

After a year of running, I am the fastest I have ever been and in the best shape of my life. Mike has had a similar experience. He has achieved his initial ‘carrot’ goals, but he does not see those goals as his primary motivation for continuing to ride his bike. Mike enjoys autonomy by choosing his racing and training schedule, mastery by continuing to develop his skills, and his purpose is more than just the initial ‘carrot’ goal of losing weight.

What is your motivation for running a 15K or half marathon? What was your motivation to start running in the first place?

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