The program I’m developing revolves around the basic principles of Operant Conditioning. There are immediately some glaring questions: What is operant conditioning, why do animal trainers swear by it, and how on earth will operant conditioning help in a fitness program?
I’m not trying to “dumb down” the definition of Operant Conditioning, but I do want to try to simplify it. Basically, Operant Conditioning breaks down a behavior into small steps and progresses through those steps one at a time. The first step is the simplest, easiest step to accomplish and the following steps add an element to the behavior until it is complete. As the animal learns, they receive a specific consequence for the behavior. These consequences are a choice of Positive or Negative Reinforcement, or Positive and Negative Punishment.
To clarify, “positive” and “negative” don’t refer to “good” or “bad”. Positive means something is given to the recipient as a consequence. Negative means something is taken away. Reinforcement means the consequence will increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. Punishment means the consequence will decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.
So, when we put the terms together, we discover that positive reinforcement means something is given to increase the behavior. When we receive a paycheck, we are being positively reinforced for our work. On the opposite side of the reinforcement spectrum is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement means something is taken away to increase behavior (an aversive is removed as a reward). Think of the dinging going away when you buckle your seat belt.
Positive punishment, on the other hand, is something given to the recipient to decrease the likelihood of repeating a certain behavior: yelling, hitting, or spraying water, anything used as an aversive- to STOP a behavior. And negative punishment is taking away something positive to decrease behavior , such as taking away the phone, toy, or driving privileges when teenager comes home late.
There is nothing inherently “wrong” or “superior” with either of these methods. However, I am going to show why one of those methods is preferred by animal trainers. What I mean is, if you yell at a child to get them away from a hot stove, you are not a bad person for using positive punishment. Nor are you a mean-spirited person for using negative punishment on your surly teenager. But when we are dealing with animals that cannot communicate with us the way other humans can, animal trainers have found it is easier to tell the animal what behaviors they WANT them to continue rather than ALL the behaviors they don’t want.
For example if I wanted my dog to sit using just punishment, I would tug on the leash for him standing, and tell him no for trying to walk. This could go on and on, the poor dog getting “no” and tugs on leash but he would still have no clue what I wanted from him.
In contrast, if I want my dog to sit, I may pay no attention to him while he’s standing, but as soon he sits down he is showered with attention, rubs, and treats. It is a lot easier for us to assume he knows EXACTLY what I want from him in this instance.
Let’s look at a human example:When I was a bratty teenager, I used to sneak out a lot. Most of the time I didn’t get caught. But once or twice my parents found out and I would be punished, usually grounded or having privileges revoked. The punishment was supposed to stop my sneaking out behavior. It didn’t. Instead, it taught me to be sneakier so I decreased the chances of get caught. And therein lies the biggest issue with punishment as a consequence. We never really are certain what we are actually teaching when we are solely focused on what shouldn’t be done.
Learning a bit about operant conditioning explains why zookeepers across the globe have adopted positive reinforcement as their focus when working with animals. But what does all this have to do with your fitness?
We may not realize how prominent operant conditioning relates to our everyday life, especially fitness. Using punishment and reinforcement motivates us in different ways. Punishment teaches us what not to do, while reinforcement encourages specific behavior to re-occur.
Punishment is something we generally wish to avoid. It’s an aversive stimuli that when presented will stop the immediate action that is occurring. For this reason, some facilities utilize a penalty exercise (usually burpees, or some other complex combination exercise) for tardiness to classes. The underlying reason for delegating burpees to late participants is actually quite benign. If you have not had the pleasure of performing a burpee, let me explain the beauty of this incredible exercise- imagine falling onto the floor, purposefully, and then hopping right back up. It is an incredible warm-up exercise, especially if you are in a hurry to jump-start your cardio and loosen up some of your muscles. Because it’s such a great exercise that hits multiple targets at once, it is the perfect exercise to give someone when they are running late to class. That’s not the problem with burpees. It’s the mentality of burpees as a punishment that raises red flags. A trainer uses punishment to teach a participant in class to not be late. But the problem with punishment is that it may not teach the pupil what you intend it to teach.
Remember the case of teaching a dog to sit through punishment? It didn’t actually learn to sit. It learned to not stand, not walk, not lie down, etc. Because punishment teaches the subject what not to do. So, if you know that you are going to “have” to do 20 burpees for being late and you want to avoid doing burpees because you view them as an aversive, what are you going to do next time you are running late to class? Most people are likely to skip the class altogether to avoid the penalty. Did the punishment teach us to show up to class on time?
Even with the absolute best, most positive intentions, punishment can send the wrong signal. I’ve seen signs in facilities that state “Use of the word ‘can’t’ will result in a 10 burpee penalty”. I understand the sentiment. Focus on the positive. Keep coming and get stronger so you can do the exercise. But once again, punishment doesn’t necessarily teach what was intended. By penalizing the word “can’t”, trainers may in fact be teaching their members to not speak up and voice their struggles. By punishing someone for saying “I can’t do a pull-up”, they may keep quiet, desperately wishing they could get better but not knowing how to tell their trainer. In the end, the member may get frustrated that they still can’t do a pull-up because they never voiced their concerns, and that frustration could lead to them giving up on other goals as well.In addition to teaching lessons trainers didn’t intend to impose on their clients, I shy away from any exercise being designated a punishment. Remember a punishment is an aversive that the subject will work hard to avoid. Exercise is good for you! We should appreciate and enjoy every workout, every movement, and every bead of sweat we produce because we are creating a better body, a better life for ourselves. Instead of utilizing burpees as a punishment, I advocate getting excited over doing complex exercises that challenge us. Appreciate them for what they will do for our bodies and even what they will do for our psyche when we complete the challenge.
So punishment is out, then. But why focus on Positive reinforcement and not positive and negative. Reinforcement is reinforcement, right? Recall that negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive, which implies that there is an essence of punishment lingering in the background. Beyond that, though, negative reinforcement simply doesn’t motivate and push us to exceed our goals the way positive reinforcement can.
A very popular trend in fitness centers is something referred to as the “Carrots and Sticks” approach. This program has participants put money down, almost as in a bet. Participants are encouraged to put a significant amount at stake, as they are informed the higher the stakes, the more motivated they will be to meet their goal. The participant then works towards their goal, with the amount of money on the line if they don’t meet their goal. At the end of the challenge or program, if the participant reaches their goal, they don’t lose their money. If they don’t reach their goal, then the trainer, fitness center, or sometimes a charity will receive the money that was at stake.This method does indeed motivate many individuals. Losing money is a powerful motivator. Negative reinforcement does tend to work that way, at least temporarily. But it’s often short-term. Think of a gazelle on the African plain. They are negatively reinforced to run really fast when pursued by a predator, such as a lion or a cheetah. By running fast, they avoid a strong aversive. That’s a powerful motivator! But the gazelle will not continue to run at super-high speed for a long extended period of time. They are going to run fast only as long as it is necessary to avoid the predator.
Participants in a “Carrots and Sticks” program or challenge are going to behave in a similar fashion to the gazelle. They will work just hard enough to reach their goal. And once they reach their goal, they can relax and stop. Negative reinforcement works great temporarily, but falls short on long-term lifestyle changes.
Negative reinforcement also doesn’t motivate as well as positive reinforcement. Imagine participating in a “Carrots and Sticks” challenge and you worked very hard, but did not reach your goal in the allotted time. The program is about to start a fresh new challenge, with the same amount of money on the line. How likely are you to sign up for the challenge a second time? The average person would not likely risk losing their money a second time around. Even participants that meet their goal have a difficult time signing up for a second chance.
So, how does Positive Reinforcement measure up? With Positive reinforcement, punishment is never on the line. If a goal isn’t met, nothing happens. Instead, by focusing on the positive side of things- showing up to a class, hitting a personal record, finishing a workout, or even little victories such as drinking enough water and logging meals, there is a greater tendency to keep going, gaining motivation.
Imagine the “late to class” scenario where punishment was incorporated, but this time, imagine a Positive Reinforcement approach. When class starts, the trainer welcomes everyone warmly and begins the warm-up. If a student arrives late, after the warm-up is finished, the trainer acknowledges them by saying “I’m so glad you made it! You just missed a terrific warm-up, and we’re getting ready to start the circuit/skill/etc, so why don’t you do a quick warm-up of 15-20 burpees and then you can jump right in and join us!” I particularly like this approach because it doesn’t mention any negative behaviors. Instead, it focuses on all the positives. They came to class! That’s AWESOME! And the participant needs to warm up so suggesting burpees as the warm-up in at least a neutral way doesn’t brand the exercise as a penalty or punishment. But what I really like is dangling over the tardy person’s head the Positive Reinforcement they can experience when they show up to class on time- the “terrific warm-up” (of course, it’s important for the trainer to follow up and make their warm-ups as fun as possible).
Positive reinforcement doesn’t just teach the actual desired behavior, either. As opposed to negative reinforcement which has been shown to work only temporarily, positive reinforcement helps encourage and further motivate participants. Take the “Carrots and Sticks” challenge approach and apply positive reinforcement. Instead of “risking” money, you may have a chance at gaining something of value when you reach your goal. It doesn’t even have to be money, but the idea of “winning” something as a reward can be incredibly motivating. And in the event that you don’t reach your goal in the allotted time, nothing bad happens. In fact, there will not be any mention of it at all. Instead, the focus is always on when you do reach your goal.
Imagine a challenge with a celebration at the end, to recognize all the progress that was achieved. Even if you didn’t meet your actual goal, how likely would you be to sign up for another challenge with a focus on positive reinforcement?
Now that we see how Operant Conditioning affects our motivation for fitness, take some time to reflect on how we currently treat ourselves in our fitness lifestyle. Look at your eating habits, and how you react to your eating habits. Think about how you feel about working out. Do you ever berate yourself for eating unhealthy? Do you create hostility around working out because you view it as a chore? Do you find yourself admonishing your actions because “you know better”? These methods of dealing with our routines are heavily focused on punishment.
Operant Conditioning with a focus on Positive Reinforcement empowers you to really look at your goals, what steps you’ll take,and how you’ll deal with working towards your desired outcome. How you approach setbacks, as well as the triumphs, often determines whether or not we continue on with our journey. By using Operant Conditioning with a focus on Positive Reinforcement, we are not only mentally prepared to tackle our fitness, but we will have a lot more fun doing it, and will create more lasting, sustainable healthy habits.