The arrival of spring is second to only New Year’s as the calendar event that spurs us to eat healthier and be more active. But science has shown that all the “X days till summer!” reminders in the world won’t help you change your eating and exercise habits if you’re primarily focused on how you’ll look in your bathing suit.
If you want to form habits that last, your motivation to eat better and get in shape needs to be based on something you deeply value — such as having enough strength, stamina and energy to hike your favorite trails. Envisioning what you will look like once you’re “bathing suit ready” or when you make an entrance at your high school reunion isn’t the motivator you think it is.
Attempting to change your behavior and appearance to earn the approval of others taps into something researchers call “social identity threat.” And instead of helping, it often boomerangs.
Here’s how that works: If you see yourself as overweight or unfit, or believe others see you that way, it becomes part of your social identity. When you fear being rejected, devalued or judged because of negative stereotypes about your identity, it leads to stress, anxiety, lower self-esteem and increased self-consciousness. Ironically, this can make you want to avoid going to the gym to avoid scrutiny and/or contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors as you try to escape your emotional discomfort.
If you find yourself struggling with an appearance-related goal, you’re more likely to abandon it as it becomes a source of stress. Change is more likely to come when you make changes based on who you are, not on how you think you will be perceived.
This is where values come in. You will start to make choices that align with your values. How so? Let’s say that you like taking hikes. Eating well and exercising regularly can help keep you strong enough that you enjoy the hikes rather than end up struggling through them.
Setting goals based on what you value goes beyond just achieving something — such as reaching a desired weight or clothing size. It’s about making decisions that align with who you are and how you want to be. And because your values have no endpoint, behaviors based on your values won’t, either.
A good way to focus on values-based motivations is to make a list of the things that are most important to you. Then, make a list of the activities that support those values. For instance, if you enjoy kayaking, one of your activities would be to strengthen your arms.
Every time you are at a choice crossroads, ask yourself: “If I choose X, is that moving me closer to what I value, or further away?”
That said, remember to retain some flexibility. If you turn values-based actions into rules — “I must go to the gym every day, no matter what” — you will become rigid and run the risk of souring yourself on the activity.