Motivation, personality and CrossFit

Posted: June 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

What is it that keeps you going to the gym, the box or, in my case, the garage when you really don’t feel like it? What makes you overcome that strongest of forces in the universe, inertia?

It took me hitting the age of 50 before I finally got motivated to work out. I had motivation to do other things in my life, but generally those were things I had an intrinsic interest in. To do something that you are not particularly interested in, or that you are sure you’re bad at and probably can’t do even with effort, there’s got to be something more.

I remember hearing as a kid that we all have basic drivers: to be perfect and to please others are the ones I remember, as those were two I identified with. I can think of others that may or may not have been part of the list: to avoid pain (including psychological pain, like failure), to feel part of a group, to assuage fear or anxiety. Money is a driver for some.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often used as a way to describe motivation. Generally represented as a pyramid, Maslow’s theory rests on the idea that once needs at a lower level are met, people are motivated to meet higher level needs. So the basic physiological survival needs (food, water, sex) are the first level; once you’ve gotten those things taken care of, your motivations are based on the next level. But some people, particularly those whose first level needs have been in jeopardy for a long time, particularly during childhood, will get stuck on one level of the pyramid.

But although Maslow’s theory is a good general explanation, motivation in any particular individual is a little more complicated. First, there’s something called the Kohler effect (there should be an umlaut — y’know, the two little dots over the letter that make an o look like it has ears — over the o) that you’re probably aware of even if you (like me) weren’t aware it had a name: the idea that being part of a group increases motivation and consequently performance. That’s why people are encouraged to have exercise partners, and at least one study suggests that even virtual workout partners are useful.

CrossFit encourages this team mentality, with the idea that people supporting each other’s workout goals creates success. A sense of community, accountability and  support are all part of the formula.

This theory has a couple of caveats, though, I would think: first, you have to be in partnership where you won’t both agree to quit. One person must be able to keep the two motivated, even if that role is alternated. If neither person really wants to workout, it’s pretty easy to convince each other to quit.

The second is the problem I have: I don’t want anyone to watch me do something I’m bad at and I have serious autonomy issues. If I get the faintest whiff that someone is trying to control me, I immediately shut down and do the opposite, even to my own detriment. Yeah, it’s sick and I’m working on it, but that’s why the “get-you-a-partner” doesn’t generally work for me. Oh, and that brings me to yet another problem: if I feel I’m failing the group, I start reacting with avoidance behaviors because I’m embarrassed or ashamed that I can’t keep up. “They’ll be better off without me,” I start thinking.

But I’m probably in the minority; I find that’s often the case. (My first thought was to say “I’m weird,” but trying to work on that self-talk thing.)

Another motivator is the desire to help others, particularly as a motivation for leadership. This one I can relate to; one of my motivators at this point is that I want to change my health-related behaviors so that I’m no longer a sucky role model for my kids. Granted, my modeling is offset by my husband’s, but I don’t want either of my kids to walk this road of self-inflicted ill health (well, at least self-inflicted to some extent; some of it was unavoidable, but it all would have been mitigated to some degree had I been practicing better self-care by eating healthy foods and exercising regularly).

What motivates you may have something to do with your mood, as well. Angry people apparently respond better to rewards than to threats:

Anger is a negative emotion. But, like being happy or excited, feeling angry makes people want to seek rewards, according to a new study of emotion and visual attention. The researchers found that people who are angry pay more attention to rewards than to threats — the opposite of people feeling other negative emotions like fear.

That’s one explanation of why some professional athletes thrive under the coach-as-bully model, and others under coach-as-mentor model. I don’t know if I’m angry or have positive emotions, but I’m definitely one that reacts much better to being rewarded with compliments and other attaboys than with threats and bullying, which mostly make me … angry? So even more motivated by rewards. Huh.

Motivation is not always conscious, as the link to emotions demonstrates. Even more telling is your conflicting motivations, where your brain may not even agree with itself:

Motivation doesn’t have to be conscious; your brain can decide how much it wants something without input from your conscious mind. Now a new study shows that both halves of your brain don’t even have to agree. Motivation can happen in one side of the brain at a time.

This study demonstrated that your left hand really doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing:

Researchers at INSERM in Paris first measured how hard 33 subjects could squeeze a grip with each hand. Then they presented the subjects with images on a computer screen of either a one-euro coin or a one-cent coin. The coins were visible to only one eye at a time, and they appeared for only 17 milliseconds­—long enough for sub­liminal, but not conscious, processing. After each coin image flashed, the subjects squeezed the grip with whatever hand they were holding it in — they were told they would win a fraction of the coin’s value depending on the amount of effort they exerted. Each subject got to try all four possible combinations of eyes and hands: right eye with right or left hand and left eye with right or left hand.

Although the subjects could not correctly guess which coin they had seen — confirming that they were not conscious of what they saw — they squeezed harder when presented with the larger coin if the hand grip was on the same side of the body as the eye that had seen it. Their squeezes did not change depending on what the opposite eye saw, indicating that only half the brain was being motivated at a time.

Motivation to exercise may be specifically linked to personality:

Humans are not the only animals that choose to exercise, and — as with people — individuals within the same species differ in their levels of activity … Likewise, scientists now recognise that many animals have “personality,” in that they display consistent differences in behaviours. Dr. [Peter] Biro believes it is significant that those behaviors often relate to the rates at which they acquire and expend energy through feeding or activity … The article reviews a wide range of recent research into these questions and concludes that there is now enough evidence to suggest a link between an individual’s personality and the rate of its metabolism.

Basically, the conclusion these researchers come to is that “jocks” are motivated to exercise, at least in part, because they have energy to burn, and that those of us who are naturally couch potatoes have lower metabolic rates. But what I find odd about this conclusion is they also link aggressive behavior to the same metabolic level that creates athletes. Why? Because too many people have told me I’m an A-type personality and I am aggressive in many areas … just not athletics. I think it’s more likely that the metabolism determines the way that an individual acts out their aggression, not whether they are aggressive.

Personally, I buy into this explanation more than any:

What pushes employees to do their best work? Many businesses operate under the belief that the key to motivating workers is giving them tangible rewards, such as a cash bonus or a corner office. In the book Drive, business writer Daniel H. Pink argues persuasively that these companies have it all wrong. He cites a body of behavioral science research that suggests that optimal performance comes when people find intrinsic meaning in their work.

Granted, this research is specifically addressing motivation in the context of work, but the same can be said of workouts. As I said at the beginning of this essay, I’ve always been motivated to do things I intrinsically enjoy. You don’t have to push me to read, write, watch movies or television or eat great food. Other people intrinsically enjoy exercise; not me. When it’s something I find meaning in, then I may have to push a little more, but not as much as when I don’t see the value of something for myself.

It took a hell of a lot for me to admit the value of regular exercise, no matter how many experts or doctors or trainers or newspaper/magazine articles swore by it. Sweating isn’t ladylike (and I’m such a lady [holds up sarcasm sign for Sheldon]. Really, that’s not a good excuse for me; despite my training and Southern/Texas orientation, I will go out in public sans makeup). It’s boring (well, actually, not so much the case for CrossFit for most people; they vary the workout of the day every day). It won’t really help you with weight loss/control (well, yes, you can’t outrun your mouth, but you can’t increase your metabolism to live on a decent amount of food without increasing your activity). And who has time for exercise when you’ve got a fulltime job and kids?

It took coming to a full stop to get me past my resistance. Gary always exercised, but I always dismissed it because 1) he was good at it, 2) he intrinsically enjoyed it, and 3) it made him feel better about himself. I met none of those criteria. But after a full year of migraines that had me in bed something like 60% of the time and feeling like crap probably 95% of the time I was conscious, which followed at least six years of one illness/injury after another, I was finally ready to do whatever it took to end the misery. I know that the clock is ticking; menopause is one of those alarms that make you realize that it’ll be harder to do some things (like lose weight and not have saggy skin) and at a higher risk for illness than before.

Why not sooner? Probably the same reason most of us procrastinate when it comes to making difficult changes: We want to believe that whatever bad thing is out there (lung cancer for smokers, liver damage for heavy drinkers) won’t happen to us. If people dropped dead with the first cigarette or when they stopped being physically active, we’d all pay more attention to those kinds of things. But we never want to believe that X bad thing will happen to us.

But it can. It did to me. Bad eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle aren’t all there was to it, but it sure as hell hasn’t helped. Don’t wait until you’ve lost at least a year of your life. Find that motivation and get out there and do something to make yourself healthier. It won’t ward off all the bad things that can happen; none of us have that much control. But do what you can with that which is within your control.

  1. lizjaegs says:

    I have a lot to say on this but I am traveling right now !! Back at ya in a few a days ?????

  2. Verla says:

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    website. I really hope to check out the same high-grade content from you later on as well.

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