TI Coach Mat Hudson recently started an on-line book club to discuss books of interest to TI enthusiasts. Our first book is TI Coach Grant Molyneux’s book Effortless Exercise.
Mat’s first assignment was to discuss a question Grant posed in Chapter 1: “What part would exercise play in my life if I experienced heightened vitality during and after each session?” With two thirds of Americans overweight to obese, and resulting health costs reaching unsustainable levels, anything that can help motivate more people to shift from sedentary to active lifestyles would have extraordinary value, to the health of the economy as well as each newly-active individual.
NY Times health writer Jane Brody spelled out the challenge of making this happen last August, in her article Changing Our Tune on Exercise. Brody wrote: “For decades, people have been bombarded with messages that regular exercise is necessary to lose weight, prevent serious disease and foster healthy aging. While most people say they value these goals, the vast majority of Americans have thus far failed to swallow the ‘exercise pill.'”
What can increase inclination to exercise? The key is changing your reason for exercising. Setting a goal of, say, losing 15 lbs by the summer, nearly always fails as a motivator. When health researchers interview people who do exercise regularly, they say their main motivation for being active is because they know that the time they spend exercising today will be so rewarding–in fact, for many, the best part of their day.
If experiencing heightened vitality during and after exercise was your reality, isn’t it likely you’d find exercising almost irresistible, rather than a checkoff you do because it’s supposed to be good for you? In that case, the most sensible and effective exercise goal should be the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from a sense of heightened vitality. But most swimmers, runners and gym members set different goals—most commonly to complete a particular distance or time, or a certain frequency—say, three times a week. Some have the discipline to keep it up, but without intrinsic reward, the majority are likely to find the will is weak.
From Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation
From my late 20s to late 30s, I exercised pretty irregularly. Partly because my daughters were young and their needs came first. Partly because after coaching three or four hours I had little desire to spend more time at the pool. (I ran a bit, but without much enthusiasm or purpose.) And partly because, like many people that age, I had little sense of health issues as a looming problem.
A bout with nearly-crippling back trouble got me back in the pool at 38 and, before long, into Masters swimming. I trained somewhat steadily for four years, pushed by a familiar urge—to swim faster times , or at least what I considered ‘respectable’ relative to how fast I’d swum in college. I didn’t think deeply about my reasons. I wanted to avoid back pain and the habit of doing repeats on intervals had become well established decades earlier.
My shift toward more personal reasons to exercise came in my early 40s. I took a hiatus from Masters swimming, which freed me from the repeat-treadmill. And I was introduced to yoga—which had none of my familiar extrinsic motivational sources—time or speed goals, or the performance pressure of a coming meet.
Yoga’s primary influence was in exposing me to the idea the idea of doing an activity well for its own sake—I was inspired by the beauty, grace and strength of those around me and wanted my poses to achieve a similar esthetic. And I discovered that the laserlike focus that took, and the feeling of using my body well in a new way, left me feeling physically and mentally energized–call it heightened vitality—in a way that seemed more enduring than the momentary satisfaction of a fast repeat swim.
My hiatus from competing in Masters lasted about 10 years. During that time I continued swimming—much of the time experimenting with drill and skill tweaks for TI workshops and videos. But my exposure to yoga influenced me to practice swimming less like running and more like yoga.
I resumed competing, mostly in open water, in my early 50s and have continued doing so for 10 years. I’ve lost none of my competitive spirit and virtually all of my practice tasks are designed to hone race-winning skills. But the motivation that sends me to the pool or lake regularly is no longer the desire to win a future race.
Nor is it even the knowledge that my swimming, yoga or any form of exercise will ensure healthy aging. I’m confident I’ll receive those benefits and value them highly. But my most compelling reasons for being an active person are (i) the immediate pleasure of using my body well, in a way it was meant to be used; and (ii) the Flow States I experience from doing activities that require my complete focus. Both have powerful addictive qualities which means I start each day eagerly anticipating experiencing them again.