What gives you the incentive to get your butt to the gym? Imagining how awesome you’ll look on vacation? A 5K race you’ve got on the calendar? While there are many ways to get workout motivation, many people revert to the “carrot” or the “stick” approach. This old idiom refers to the idea that we’re most often driven by either the promise of reward (the carrot) or the fear of punishment (the stick).
If promising yourself new gear from Nike helps you commit to sweat sessions, you might be the “carrot” type. On the other hand, if the fear of not fitting into that outfit you have to wear to your cousin’s wedding is enough, you might be inspired by the “stick.” Either way, figuring out what works for you can help give you the extra push you need to reach your fitness goals.
The Stick: Why Some People Are Motivated by Punishment
Penalizing yourself for missed workouts may seem harsh, but there’s a reason why it works. The fear of losing something (be it your abs or money) can be a powerful motivator. A recent study published in the journal Cognition, found that while rewards reinforce good behavior, we really, really hate punishments. So we try to avoid them at all costs — even when the damages are rather tiny (like losing five to 25 cents). Researchers found that the threat of a loss had a two to three times bigger effect on manipulating behavior than a reward.
If you’re ultra competitive and thrive on winning, you may be suited for the stick system, says Gregory Chertok, M.Ed., certified sports psychology consultant through Telos Sport Psychology Coaching. “I had a client who teamed up with a friend and they’d put their own money on the line. An insufficient number of weekly workouts would lead to losing a certain amount of money,” he explains.
Yet, this method is not for everyone, Chertok warns. If you’re loss-averse, risking money might discourage you too much, causing you to quit altogether. Plus, this method only works if you’re punishing the behavior — not yourself. Calling yourself ‘lazy’ for not going to the gym will only hurt your self-esteem.
If you want to try this method, Chertok recommends setting it up as a buddy system where one person or a group of friends can hold you accountable. It’ll foster friendly competition and you’ll have to answer to someone if you skip out on the morning spin class. Why not make it into a friendly wager: The loser buys everyone else lunch. (A healthy lunch, of course.)
The Carrot: Here’s Why Rewards Work
If you feel you lack self-motivation, a reward approach may be right for you, especially if you need a little something extra when you’re just starting a routine. You can reward yourself for a job well done in many ways. Maybe it’s an immediate pay-off: You promise yourself a dessert-like protein shake after a long run. That’s called dangling a carrot, and it works by reinforcing positive behaviors, which over time, become habits.
Another strategy might be a financial incentive, whether you’re depositing a couple dollars in a jar every time you hit the gym, or getting paid to exercise through an app like Pact, where you can earn cash by exercising (paid by penalties from people who don’t). According to a 2013 meta-analysis of 11 studies in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, financial incentives were effective at getting people to the gym for up to six months. The catch: They don’t know if the effects last beyond the short-term. In fact, there’s evidence that using outside rewards can tank natural motivation once the novelty wears off. Instead, you may want to focus on rewarding yourself with experiences rather than things, says Chertok. Research shows this can lead to longer-term motivation and happiness.
The Best Workout Motivation: Finding Your Inner Carrot
Regardless of which way you lean, over time, you may find yourself getting hooked on the endorphins provided by exercise, which can be an even bigger motivator, says Chertok. That’s called finding your inner carrot, and it’s the most important piece of the puzzle. Because if you exercise as a means to an end (lose weight, get some moolah), what happens when you achieve it or the rewards stop?
“Intrinsic rewards seem to better sustain a behavior,” says Chertok. “Not everyone gets motivated by the allure of financial gain. The most powerful motivator comes from within,” he says. Focus on what’s going on inside: You feel good, you’re getting healthier by the second, and, gosh, yep, it’s even fun. At the end of the day, that’s what counts when it comes to maintaining an exercise routine.