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Let’s Get Physical, Physical!

6 Tips to Help You Get into Mental and Physical Shape Through Behavior Modification

If you’re like me, you have a love/hate relationship with going to the gym and working out! Now, I don’t mind walking nature trails with my wife and our two dachshunds or riding bikes on the weekends, especially with the cooler weather. But waking up before work or school and pumping iron, hits differently. Now, I do manage to wake up early, hit the gym, and throw around some weights, figuratively speaking of course! This, however, took some time to get into my routine and make it a habit. The question is, how do we work to get into that routine and form the habit? On average, our behaviors can become habitual around 66 days, a bit longer for exercise. So, if you want to form the habit of working out, do it every day for 2 months. To help us form this and other habits, we can utilize psychology and the concept of behavior modification. Let us take a step back and examine the mental and physical health benefits of working out. The purpose of this and other blogs is to provide useful information through psychoeducation, so let’s go to school cause class is in session.

What are some benefits of working out?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working out has many benefits, such as achieving better sleep, improved brain health, weight management, reducing the risk of disease, improved flexibility, and strengthened bones and muscles. Furthermore, it can be used as a frontline treatment for depression. A scientific review “which looked at more than 95 scientific reviews encompassing 128,000 participants, found physical activity provided positive impacts across all studies and was 1.5 times more effective in some cases than counseling or medication in tackling depression.” Another benefit to consider is the bonding that takes place with your gym/workout partner or significant other. By working out with someone else, you become accountable for and to each other. Your bond becomes stronger through motivation, commitment, and pushing each other to take the journey of a healthier, longer, and more enjoyable life. By creating the habit of working out, it will spill over into other aspects of your life, both personal and professional.

What is behavior modification?

Now that we know a little about the benefits of working out, let’s delve into what exactly behavior modification entails. Behavior modification enforces desired behaviors using the principles of operant conditioning. Whew! simply put, behavior is shaped using positive and negative reinforcement, as well as punishment, and/or a token economy. Before we can apply operant conditioning principles, we must understand them on a fundamental level. Here are the principles with an example of each.

  • Positive Reinforcement – Strengthens a behavior by adding a desirable stimulus or reward. Ex: You work out M-F. So, you reward yourself by buying your favorite protein shake each day or you reward yourself by taking the weekend off.

  • Negative Reinforcement – Strengthens a behavior by removing something negative or aversive. Ex: You miss a day at the gym. You feel bad for not going/missing, so to remove that aversive feeling, you go to the gym the next day. You can’t feel bad for missing the gym if you go to the gym.

  • Positive Punishment – Decreases a behavior by adding something undesirable. Ex: One day you don’t go to the gym. So, you run an extra mile on the treadmill or do an extra set the next day.

  • Negative Punishment – Decreases a behavior by removing something desirable. Ex: One day you don’t go to the gym. So, you don’t get a cheat meal or the weekend off.

  • Token Economy – This is where you earn tokens or points of some sort for exhibiting a desired behavior, i.e., going to the gym daily, and then can later be exchanged for various privileges or treats, i.e., points towards a cheat meal, shopping, free time of your choice, video game time, etc.

Here is a helpful and short video explaining the concepts. Note: these rewards, reinforcers, and punishments to modify behavior will vary depending on you.

What are some tips to shape and condition yourself to perform healthful behaviors, such as working out?

  1. Identify a Behavior you Wish to Change. First things first, you gotta pick a behavior, in this case, going to the gym or working out. If you feel that you are lethargic apathetic or sedentary, that is the target behavior that must be modified, so you must increase your physical activity.

  2. Set Objectives and Goals. Set small, measurable, and realistic objectives which will lead to larger, measurable, and realistic goals. Setting a goal of running 10 miles a day, or 500 push-ups a day, while quite ambitious, is not realistic. Start with working out or going to the gym on Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays or Tuesdays/Thursdays (objectives), then progress to going daily (goals). If you want to run a marathon that takes place in a year, don’t say you’re going to run 10 miles a day to train. Instead, start with running one mile per day, then once that objective is completed, move to 2 miles, then progress to the larger goal of 10 miles. Perhaps you could start with 10 push-ups a day, then move to 15, and so on. You could attend 2 yoga sessions a week, then move to 3 or 4 after attending the 2 sessions first. You must walk before you can run!

  3. Monitor your Behavior. Keep track of your behavior. Make a daily/weekly workout journal or log to keep track. Keeping track of your behavior will provide a baseline that you can measure your progress against. As your behavior continues and increases, this will become a reinforcer in and of itself. Most of us have smartphones which have various apps that can keep track of it, and they often have their own rewards for achieving your objectives and goals (I’m looking at you - iWatch/iPhone Fitness app). Pen and paper also work just fine. The point is to monitor, keep track, and have accountability.

  4. Select a Positive Reinforcer and Decide on a Reinforcement Schedule. Choose a reinforcer that is something attainable and achievable and that you genuinely enjoy! For example, you could treat yourself to a movie each week that you meet your goal. Or each day you work out, you could fill a jar with some amount of money which you could use to buy something that you might not normally spend money on. i.e., a video game, purse, cheat meal, new pair of gym shoes, a new outfit ‘Treat Yo Self’!

  5. Reinforce the Desired Behavior. To increase the behavior, i.e., working out, going to the gym, waking up early to go workout, or yoga, you need to reinforce that behavior when it occurs; Stay consistent. If you work out 3 times a week, treat yourself by binge-watching a show at the end of the week. And should you miss a workout, don’t reward yourself by binge-watching a show, cause you’re only reinforcing that behavior, instead resist and save the show for when you do workout. If you want the behavior modification to work, you must resist! Remember, reinforcement increases the strength of the behavior and punishment decreases it.

  6. Modify your Goals, Reinforcements, or Reinforcement Schedules, as Needed. Once you start hitting your objectives and goals, make them more challenging. You can add more days of working out, adding more miles to run, adding more yoga sessions to attend, etc. Keep your body and muscles guessing, mix it up. Mixing up your routine will help to reduce the risk of injury because you will target different muscle groups and joints. Use reinforcers that are genuinely appealing to you, which make you want to achieve our objectives/goals. If you don’t care about going to the newest movie, there’s no point in making that the reward. And be sure to change the schedule of your reinforcement so you work harder to attain it. Ex: Rather than rewarding yourself after each workout, reward yourself after two workouts or after a week of consistent workouts.

At the end of the day, do what works for you, and work at your own pace. These principles just discussed can be utilized to address other behaviors in your personal and professional life, such as doing homework, or spending too much on social media. The point of this blog is to provide helpful and insightful information that can be used in your daily as well as in all other aspects of your life. We’re human and we all struggle with making healthy habits and sticking to them. As I mentioned earlier, I go to the gym daily, but it took me time to develop that habit, and there are days that I just don’t want to wake up early to work out, to this day, I still use these principles. Finally, now you know how to utilize behavior modification and apply it to your life to improve your mental and physical health and well-being, and knowing is half the battle! Good luck!

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