The "Tough Love" Approach to Motivation


Eva Pila

date published

March 13, 2015, 7:12 p.m.



During the first week of February, I attended a bootcamp-style fitness class with Hayley, a friend and fellow graduate student in exercise psychology. As advocates for exercise and health promotion, Hayley and I try to exercise regularly and share similar goals: 1) to engage in physical activity that we enjoy, 2) to reap the benefits that exercise can have on our physical health and mental well-being and 3) to learn new skills and challenge ourselves to grow. 

For me personally, setting these balanced goals of exercise has taken some time. It’s very easy to get sucked into the mentality that exercise should be used as a way to manage our physical appearance, body shape and weight. We are exposed to a constant onslaught that we should use exercise to “get a beach body before the summer” and “lose those 15 pounds” or “achieve a thigh gap”. Rarely does the media or society in general promote the message that we should exercise for enjoyment, long-term health and personal growth. Rather exercise is promoted as a method of managing our appearance and weight to fit a socially constructed ideal of beauty.

During our first session in this fitness class, the appearance-focused messages became very apparent, very quickly. And in the midst of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I couldn’t help but think: “How are these messages affecting participants in this class who are struggling with body image, disordered eating, or any other mental illnesses?” And given the high prevalence of these psychological concerns among university-aged women, it is statistically very likely that there are at least a few individuals in the class currently struggling with or overcoming these concerns.

Weight and appearance-focused messages can have negative effects on anyone, but may significantly perpetuate negative beliefs and maladaptive attitudes in individuals for whom these issues are salient. Ultimately, this fitness class was one simple example of how we are surrounded by weight- and appearance-based commentary daily and how this is supposed to motivate us to work harder or be better.

At the end of the class, Hayley and I shared the same sentiments. We felt like we were not acting by our own volition, but rather to appease the instructor or to not feel left out in the class. This opened a dialogue around our research on exercise motivation, body image and fitness-related emotional outcomes. The research evidence is quite clear: inducing shame or guilt is not an effective tactic for motivating exercise behavior in the long-term, nor is it effective at promoting positive body image or self-esteem.

Weight-related bias and stigma aside, I strongly believe that “tough love” motivational approaches are used because they are thought to be effective. And in the short-term, this tactic can be effective. But are you likely to attend that fitness class again? Are you likely to feel good about yourself after? Are you likely to enjoy exercising for its health benefits? The scientific literature doesn’t think so. This is because tough love will only teach us to push ourselves to someone else’s standard, not our own.

So what WILL motivate long-term exercise behavior?

Feeling autonomous in our decision to do what our body allows. Feeling proud of our efforts to engage in a personal goal (e.g., running to relieve stress) rather than a specific achievement (e.g., how many miles you were able to run).  

The take home message is evidence-based and simple:

1) Engage in physical activities that you enjoy and activities that elicit positive feelings and thoughts.

2) Use your own perceptions of effort and commitment to the activity as a benchmark for improvement, rather than an absolute and arbitrary measure (e.g. weight lost).

3) Focus on health-related reasons for engaging in physical activity and confront personal weight and appearance-based reasons for exercise.   

Hope you can find well-being and happiness in any physical activity you chose. 

Eva Pila is a PhD candidate in health and exercise psychology at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on examining the influence of body- and weight-related self-conscious emotions on health outcomes and behaviours such as exercise and diet. Eva is an outreach and education voluteer at NEDIC and she will be a workshop presenter at NEDIC’s fourth biennial Body-Image and Self-Esteem Conference.

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