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Extrinsic Rewards Provide Motivation for Exercise

Tribune Media Services

"What's the trick for sticking with an exercise program?"

That's a question I often get from patients and from folks at book signings and other events. I guess people believe that since I was good at something, I must also know some secret way to make it easy. Gosh, I wish I did.

Unfortunately, there is no trick. Even the greatest athletes struggle with motivation. But my lifelong friend, Michael Lardon, M.D., associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine and award-winning brain researcher, has some clues. Based on his work on athletic peak performance, he says, "Having a reward is a way you activate your behavior with a purpose and a direction. You might have all sorts of high emotions and desires, constantly thinking, 'I want to do this, I want to do that,' but very few people can channel that into action. When you consciously channel it into action, that emotion is called motivation."

Lardon, himself a former table tennis champion, divides all rewards into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards are very effective tools for motivating yourself -- particularly with exercise and even more so when you are starting (or restarting) an exercise program -- and can come before the intrinsic rewards become apparent. (I'll explore intrinsic rewards next week.)

As the name implies, extrinsic rewards are derived from sources outside of yourself. Worthy extrinsic goals include receiving attention, praise or applause; achieving fame and fortune; or placing at a certain level in a competition. If you exercise to lose weight so you will look hot in that dress on New Year's Eve, or if you go running to beat your buddy, then you're being motivated by extrinsic rewards.

Social reinforcement is another extrinsic goal. The rewards of social reinforcement arise from the "people payback" you get when you exercise. If you attend that 7 a.m. aerobics dance class, for example, because you like the people who attend at that time, your exercise program is being bolstered by social reinforcement. Ditto if you refuse to miss a planned workout session because you don't want to let anyone down, or if you work on your golf game so you can play at the level of others in your social circle.

Social reinforcement offers a lot of bang for your buck. If you frequently break your workout dates with yourself (something always comes up, you never feel like it, or other things frequently take priority over your workout), linking up with another person or a group will end all of that. You will have a set time when everyone meets. It's more like an appointment, and you'll be less likely to break it. People will be counting on you to show up. You're also less likely to get sidelined by an exercise dilemma (such as how to interpret exercise sensations, or how to dress for exercise in rain or snow) because you have people you can turn to who may be able to offer advice. And because the social aspect is appealing, you will be enthused about going.

When I was skating, social reinforcement was a big factor for me. A bunch of us from Madison, Wis., trained together at the old outdoor Wisconsin Olympic Ice Rink (now the Pettit National Ice Center), about 45 minutes from Madison. We'd make that drive every day, all packed together in one car, doing our homework with flashlights. Two of the guys I grew up playing hockey with were Bobby Suter and Mark Johnson, members of the U.S. hockey team that won the gold medal in 1980 and beat the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice" game at the same Olympics where I medaled. In fact, Mark will be back at the Olympics in February, as the head coach of the 2010 U.S. Women's Ice Hockey Team.

The camaraderie of that group was very motivating for all of us. Today, I still derive great motivation from exercising with other people. I hope you do, too.

( 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 Exercise Bible, for a Leaner, Healthier Body in Just 12 Weeks (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf.

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