Motivation vs self-control : Reframing our self talk


Many times a week I hear clients, friends and family express a wish to have the self-control to do something different such as . . . get a better night’s sleep, eat a more balanced diet, go for a run in between PT sessions or do some mobility movements every day. I see it as my role and responsibility as an exercise professional, to challenge these comments and help reframe these thoughts to motivate people into seeing the positive effects of doing the specific activity.

What is self control?

So what is self-control?  Simply, it is the feeling like we do or do not have control over our feelings and actions.   Taking the view that we are either ‘being good’ or not is a very binary view of ourselves, all or nothing; on the wagon or off the wagon. I have absolutely had this black and white view of my own exercise routine in the past, now I prefer to take a different view. We need to recognise that our lives are busy, complicated and that simply wishing something was different isn’t going to help us make a change. A more productive/persuasive outlook is to really sell ourselves the benefits of the activity, to make it seem so good that we really do want to prioritise it.

When I used to have a more black and white view of exercise, I was either being really good because I was doing the workouts I wanted too, or I was being bad and ‘being lazy’ which generally led to more ‘bad’ behaviours like eating lots of sweets and not having my five portions of fruit and veg a day. I would see it as a spiral of bad things and this led me to have more negative feelings about myself, it seemed like everyone was ‘being good’ was better than me and I felt like I was failing. I’m pleased to say that nowadays, I have a much happier and healthier outlook, I give myself ranges to work within and I don’t see my exercise or diet as a matter of being good or bad – it just something I enjoy doing when I can.

When we approach diet and fitness from a self-control point on view, we set ourselves parameters (sometimes unrealistically) based on what we’ve read or heard from someone else.  For example – I won’t eat anything sweet anymore and I’m going to do 4 intense workouts a week.  We might achieve this for a few weeks and then we have a social event that means the 4th workout doesn’t happen and we have some cake at the social occasion (because everyone else is and why shouldn’t we!) we get home and we see that week as a failure. Phrases like ‘I should have had more self-control’, ‘why don’t I have more self-control’ and we beat ourselves up and tell ourselves that we must be better. Having self-control implies that we override our instincts, we will do that 4th workout even if every muscle we have is aching and tired, risking injury. This approach is destined to fail in the medium to long term.

If we look at a similar set of aims from a positive more motivation-based point of view, we can say we are going to aim to do 4 workouts per week, two intense workouts, one slow and steady workout on a day that I feel a bit less energetic and one stretching style session. I’ll aim for this pattern as I know I’ll feel great after two hard sessions and my body will really benefit from a stretching session and it’ll help me feel relaxed. I’ll look at the weeks ahead and I accept that this might not be possible every single week as holidays, social events and general life will interrupt this pattern, I can prioritise the workouts that I feel we would most benefit from on that day. This way we are building in flexibility and realistic aims. We can do the same with reducing the number of sweet things we eat.  Start small, I will aim to replace one snack per day with something more nutritionally dense. We can do this for a few weeks and then we can substitute our desserts out for something less sweet, maybe some berries with a drizzle of cream or honey instead of a bowl of ice-cream. By building in small steps and realistic aims we have more chance of success, we know that certain weeks are going to be easier than others to do this.   

Louise Green of Big Girl Fit coined the phrase ‘All or something’ a movement away from ‘All or nothing’ approach that is so ridged and more about the tough love approach that some trainers have. This phrase really resonates with me and my approach – some movement is better than no movement. I have clients that arrive at sessions stressed and tired and sometimes it’s most appropriate to do something, it doesn’t have to be the hardest session in the world to get some benefit from it.

Once you are pepped up and feeling motivated and enjoying your workouts it is really normal to still be a bit inconsistent and this isn’t a problem if you happy maintaining your fitness or making small steps of progress.  The key to making bigger steps in progression is consistency and that can come from routine. Routine and accountability will keep you be a bit more consistent. There is nothing quite as effective as the accountability to another person will help keep you on course to feeling stronger and fitter.

If you are keen to find out more about our personal 1:1 sessions or want some help training for your next event, please get in touch!

Sara McDonnell

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