As a member of the AAZK (American Association of Zookeepers), I have access to a several great webinars on various topics associated with zookeeping. Considering that my fitness book is based on principles of zookeeping with a focus on operant conditioning, I decided to look into the course titled “the Basics of Operant Conditioning” by Gary Priest of San Diego Zoo. I’m so glad I did! Many of the points brought up in the webinar were subjects I’m very comfortable and familiar with, but it was the topic of “Food Deprivation” that really honed me in, especially in regards to Fitness through Operant Conditioning.
Sometimes it’s hard to convey my thoughts on why I strongly discourage using food as positive reinforcement in a fitness program. But Gary hit the nail on the head when discussing food deprivation. Basically, the consensus on food deprivation in a training situation (among scientists and animal trainers) is that it isn’t an appropriate tool in an ethical training system. Progressive trainers never have to starve their animals to get the behaviors they are asking for. In the discussion of negative reinforcement (where the termination or escape of an aversive stimulus is rewarding), it was pointed out that in systems that rely on aversives, the performance levels tend to be just high enough to avoid the onset of aversive stimulus. This isn’t considered ideal behavior, because it doesn’t focus on the relationship. It’s about escape. So, when you deprive yourself or an animal of food, you are only performing to escape starvation, or to allow yourself to eat. Think about that for a couple of minutes. In fitness, if you use food as a reinforcer, you are depriving yourself of sustenance. This is not sustainable motivation for anyone to continue in a fitness regiment.
I always say, if you are craving the hell out of pizza, have a pizza. I try to bring ingredients for us to have pizza every couple of weeks or so, but I use healthier and more sustainable ingredients and make it myself, so we don’t gorge ourselves when we have a craving for it. Because if you refuse all your urges and desires, you begin to develop hostility towards the activity that you feel is depriving you. This is the number one reason I don’t recommend using food as a reward in your fitness program. There are plenty of other ways to reward yourself for creating healthy habits and meeting your fitness goals.
There is another more controversial debate when it comes to using food as a reinforcement. Food is considered a “primary reinforcer”, which is anything considered as a biological need- food, water, shelter, sex, sleep, etc. When you use food as a reinforcement, is it a positive reinforcement, something you really like, or are you incorporating negative reinforcement, which is avoiding something you don’t like- starvation, deprivation, or hunger pains? It’s sort of a which cam first type of question, but it does lead me to believe we shouldn’t focus on these methods to reach our fitness goals.
So, what exactly should you use as a reward in a fitness program? I encourage what is considered “secondary reinforcers”- often referred as “conditioned reinforcement”- which is only positive because of association with primary reinforcement. Money is a prime example, but secondary reinforcers are also individualized. What one person finds rewarding might not be ideal for another. Let’s take leisure activities as an example. I love reading. And cooking. So, I may use my love of books as a way to reward my behavior. But I don’t expect every other person on the planet to hold the same love of books that I have. I can also use my love of cooking, and experimenting with food as a reward. Create healthy meals and then play around with a new recipe or food item. I’m not that big on music, so rewarding me with new songs may or may not be an incentive for me. The key thing about these reinforcers is that they don’t deprive you if you don’t have them. They are added bonuses. That’s the important key when planning and implementing your program.
This is why it’s important to sit down and really think about what you find motivating to you when you make your plan. It’s basic operant conditioning, but it’ll take your fitness to whole new levels.