There are two kinds of rewards. Last week, I discussed external, or "extrinsic," rewards. These focus on rewards from outside sources: attention, praise, applause, winning, fame and fortune, or social reinforcement, according to my long-time buddy Michael Lardon, M.D., associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, and author of "Finding Your Zone."
Scheduled workouts with other people provide me with both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The camaraderie, the culture and the encouragement are all external rewards; I also like having someone to count on and someone who counts on count on me. Intrinsically, workout buddies spur me to go farther or faster than I might if I were alone.
Intrinsic rewards are particularly motivating when we are trying a new activity or when tiny triumphs (losing a pound of weight, for example) aren't going to register much with other people. And they're key when we're doing something we have failed at in the past. If we concentrated solely on extrinsic rewards -- how we look or how we perform compared to others -- gosh, we might want to stay home. Imagine being a professional athlete and performing badly in front of a crowd. The best athletes I've known don't get embarrassed. They get out there and do it again with full commitment, as if nothing has happened. They don't focus on how they are perceived or how they are doing compared to their competitors but on their effort -- it doesn't matter if they are alone, with their buddies or in front of millions of people. For them, it's about exploring their own abilities.
When I was younger, I had a daily intrinsic goal of simply doing well at whatever I was training at that day. My daily reward was the feeling of having gotten through a workout and done it well. If I was running quarter miles at race pace, I ran every one at race pace. My daily goal was not to cheat myself. Even today, as I pursue exercise at an entirely different level and for entirely different external reasons, that's an intrinsic reward I still find very satisfying.
Intrinsic goals can move mountains in motivating us to exercise. Once you set intrinsic goals for yourself, you suddenly won't care if you were never an athlete in high school -- you're going to exercise. You won't care if you can't dance -- you are going to take a dance class. You won't care if you failed the last 10 times you started an exercise program -- you only care about the one you're starting now. You won't think about embarrassment; you won't care what people think. Concentrating on the negative things other people might think can eat away at your motivation, says Lardon -- and, as he points out, it's really none of your concern anyway.
Intrinsic rewards also force us to cultivate the mental discipline to stay in the present. Says Lardon: "You do your best when there's only one walk, one Spin class, one workout on your mind: the next one."
This would be impossible to do, of course, with motivation derived solely from accolades. But it's easy when exercising for the sheer satisfaction of achieving your internal goals.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenothopaedics.com)