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Why Fitness Contests Don’t Work

By Danielle Wirick, MS, CSCS, FMSC

I know you’ve seen the latest gym craze with all those contests that swear you’ll have the body you want in just a few weeks… Skinny Jeans, Fat to Fab, Biggest Winner, Biggest Loser, or 21 days to anything you want! And while we’re trolling Pinterest for double chocolate peanut butter brownies, we’re also being bombarded by skinny photo-shopped women giving us their latest 30 day challenge. People will do crazy things for a short period of time thinking that it’s going to work “this time”, because everyone thinks “this time” the contest will give them the motivation they need, when in reality it rarely works.

But here’s the good news! You don’t need these contests to give you motivation because you already have all the motivation you need. As humans, we are always motivated… it’s just that we have to determine WHAT we are motivated to do and if needed, reframe it so we are motivated towards good health rather than away from it.

So a contest seems like a logical way to motivate you to get to the gym. A little competition and a nice prize if you win sounds like a great idea. But the science behind motivation has already demonstrated that these contests have a fatal flaw. They distract you from the real purpose you have for improving your health and erode some of our basic psychological needs.

So why does this happen? First, most contests set people against each other so there is one winner and a bunch of sore losers. The status, money, and even power that comes from either winning or losing then lessens your ability to relate to others. Also, the pressure of a contest comes from being the best, not your best, therefore undermining your sense of competence in the activity. Lastly, and most importantly, the prize from the contest shifts people’s attention to something they can’t control… the external reward. This causes an overjustification effect, which is “when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. The overall effect of offering a reward for a previously unrewarded activity is a shift to extrinsic motivation and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation. Once rewards are no longer offered, interest in the activity is lost; prior intrinsic motivation does not return, and extrinsic rewards must be continuously offered as motivation to sustain the activity” (Carlson, R.Neil & Heth, C.Donald (2007). Psychology the Science of Behaviour. Pearson Education:New Jersey).

So if the contest doesn’t really work, what will?? Bandura (1986) said “What people think, believe and feel affects how they behave.” So you must believe that you CAN either change and grow or LEARN how to change and grow. You also must understand that your actions influence your outcomes and that YOUR efforts will lead directly to your success. You not only have to begin, you also have to continue to be able to see real results. So although a contest might get you to the gym, it’s not going to keep you going to the gym.

A better way to get you to the gym and keep you there can be found in some very powerful questions when you answer them truthfully. Take a minute to read and answer the questions below to find your own motivation.

If you were committed to a consistent exercise program during the next 3 months, 6 months, spring season or entire year, what do you think would happen? I’m not talking about the 5 day a week exercise habit topped off with a crash diet. I mean 2-3 days a week of good quality exercise along with even just a small improvement in your diet like giving up soda pop, potato chips or those bon-bons. What would happen?

How would a realistic exercise habit impact your work, your health, your relationships, your well-being? Realistic exercise isn’t cool, sexy, or a great social media post, but it will improve so much of your life if you let it.

What do you think you need to sacrifice to accomplish this goal? How much time were you giving up for that 6 week contest? Many of my new clients come in saying they want to workout 4 or 5 days a week because they think that’s what we want to hear. But the reality is that I workout 2-3 days a week with a moderate program and let it go from my mind the rest of the time.

Finally, what is keeping you from getting in a workout? It can’t be that you’re too busy if you already poured hours on end for weeks doing a contest. Remember, you are already motivated. Just work on redirecting your motivation to what is best for you.

After you answer these questions, you will notice that it’s not as hard or exhausting as you think. This moment in time when you realize you CAN make exercise a priority is also a perfect time to try one of these psychological tips to help initiate and maintain your healthy motivation:

  1. Precommitment. We all know this one… do something ahead of time to help you commit to the health goal you want to accomplish. Trouble getting to the gym? Pack your gym bag and put it in the car the day before. Trying to eat healthier? Pack your lunch for work the night before. This is one of the ways a fitness trainer can help you get on track! Your commitment to that appointment helps get you to the gym.

  2. Chaining. Habits are often cued in by other habits you have. We eat because it’s noon, or we brush our teeth after we get up from bed. Link your workout to another habit you have to make it just a little easier. Go workout when you first get up or right when you leave work. If you think you’ll just stop by home to start dinner before your workout, think again. Before you know it you’re throwing in a load of laundry, helping the kids with homework, and cleaning up dishes! So much for that workout.

  3. Reducing Pain Points. This is something we strive for in our training facility. If there is something that makes your workout uncomfortable or awkward, why would you want to do it? Not that you can say every exercise makes you uncomfortable and just not do it, but if we can make exercise more comfortable, why not? It can be as simple as kneeling on a mat instead of the hard ground for an exercise, leaving an extra set of workout clothes at the gym, have someone teach you how to use all the equipment, or having a series of workouts so you know what to do once you walk into the gym.

These powerful questions along with a few of our tips really are the key to improving your health. It’s how you will find the WHY in your already existing motivation and have the ability to maintain that motivation so it becomes a habit. With summer approaching, and our subsequent guilt if we didn’t workout over the winter months, take a few moments now and determine where your motivation is aimed. You just may find that sitting on the couch and blowing off your workouts is less motivating than you once thought and that heading to the gym doesn’t have to be a time sucking, self esteem shattering, fight to the death, match.

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