When I began my journey into fitness a couple of years ago, I didn’t have the experience of creating healthy habits, setting fitness goals, or any motivation, really. What I did have was over 13 years experience training animals. As I progressed in fitness, I couldn’t help but see the correlation between how I planned and prepared myself and the animals I worked with for new behaviors, and the success of creating new, healthy habits. As time went on, and I learned more from other fitness gurus, the more I believed that applying the principles of operant conditioning and animal training would help increase likelihood of success.
I by no means am implying that we should treat ourselves like animals. We are a bit more complex in our way of thinking. Besides, using “training methods” on me usually backfires, as I sometimes feel I am being manipulated. But if we treat ourselves in a similar way as animal trainers treat their relationship with the animals in their charge, we can be more effective, have more fun, and see long term changes rather than a short-term quick-fix.
When an animal trainer wants to train a new behavior, several things usually take place before they dive in and start teaching the animal. Usually, the idea of a behavior stems from certain goals. Perhaps a veterinary exam is coming up and you want the animal to hold still for it. Or you need to take it to the vet and want the animal to enter a kennel or crate for the transport. There are hundreds of reasons for training the thousands of behaviors. But one thing most of these behaviors all have in common is the desired outcome from the completed behavior. Whether you are training for husbandry (animal health), enrichment, exercise, reduce stress, or to simply build a more positive relationship with a particular animal, the end result of the behavior is ultimately “Better Animal Welfare”. But, as animal trainers, we rarely train the animal for “better welfare”. We train behaviors that lead to better welfare.
Now, look at this from a fitness point of view. If you ever see a personal trainer for a fitness assessment, they usually ask you for your fitness goals. Often they offer several options for you to choose from, too- lose weight, gain muscle, tone, increase endurance, train for an event, etc. However, I’m going to make some waves in the fitness world and declare that these are not goals. These are the desired outcome of healthy, established habits. These are our desires and wants. The “goals” are the completed behavior, or build-up of habits that lead to our desired outcome.
In fitness, as with animal training, you focus on one behavior that will lead to the desired outcome. For animal training, that’s better welfare through stress reduction, cooperation during a procedure, decrease in stereotypic behaviors, or stronger, more positive relationships. The goals of the behavior are what inspire the behavior. But we don’t train the goal, we train the behavior. In fitness, the desired outcome is health and wellness. To get there, we may need to lose weight, exercise, or eat healthy. Too often, however, we attempt to “train the goal”. We focus on losing weight, or eating right, and don’t think about what behavior needs to be accomplished to achieve the goal.
Here’s another way to look at it. In animal training, we call the action being trained a “behavior”. In fitness terms, we call it “habit”. But essentially they are one in the same. Habits even follow some of the rules of operant conditioning. There is always an antecedent, or a signal, for the habit to commence. We are usually so used to doing the habit though, that the cue is very subtle, perhaps even subconscious. “When I get in my car, I put on my seatbelt.” The action is so habitual that we don’t even think of it. The action is automatic. But there is a cue in there.
In animal training, the antecedent is the signal, cue, or discriminative stimulus that tells the animal to start a particular behavior. Sometimes, the cue is so subtle, a person watching may not even notice, but all trained behaviors have some sort of antecedent.
So, if we want to achieve the desired outcome of our fitness goals, we need to learn healthy habits, and practice them until they become automatic. But we can’t start at the end product of that habit, either. Just as an animal trainer doesn’t start training a new behavior at the end stage. Using operant conditioning, an animal trainer breaks the behavior up into small, progressive steps and teaches the animal each step at a time. Trainers will stay on a certain step until the animal understands what is being asked, and then they progress to the next step.
This system can work for us as well. In fact, this particular system is suggested by several life coaches. Except they don’t call it operant conditioning. But that’s exactly what it is.
If you have a particular fitness goal in mind, try breaking the main goal down to several different “behaviors”, or habits. Now, take one of those habits and break it down into small steps. What is the easiest, simplest, most basic action you can take that would be a step in the right direction? From there, what is the next easiest, and so on until you are completing the habit on a daily basis.
When first starting out in creating healthy habits, we also may need to make our signal a bit more obvious to us. Animal trainers sometimes employ this in training a new behavior as well. For example, to teach an animal to shake their head “no”, a trainer may need to hold out their hands far apart and get the animal to target from one hand to the other. But eventually, after the behavior is established, the trainer can start to minimize the signal, until the cue for a head shake “no” is a simple twist of the wrist. It become so subtle that only the animal notices it. When we have established certain habits, we may not need gigantic signals for us, but in the beginning they can be helpful.
When I was first starting out, I had the biggest trouble remembering to drink enough water. I wanted to drink 100 oz a day, but my normal routine had me drinking maybe 20. Jumping from 20 to 100 was not going to happen overnight, so I started incorporating small habits. I set an alarm for 10 am and when it went off, I’d drink a certain amount of water. The alarm was my cue to drink water. Once that was established, I set another alarm for 12:30. And then 2:00, 5:00, and 8:00. Once my habit of drinking water regularly was established, I discovered I needed the alarms less and less, until eventually, I was drinking 100 oz of water everyday without reminders. It just became automatic for me.
A great way to think of a trigger for your healthy habit you’d like to establish is the formula “When _________ happens, then I will ______________.” So, you can create your own antecedent, and behavior.This topic could go on and on. I didn’t even delve into SMART goals, or reinforcement. But those are ideas for another day.
I’d love to hear thoughts on this concept. Send a reply and let me know what healthy habits you’d like to teach yourself.
Your right, healthy habits are the best. It’s like being awesome and not even trying.