Behavior Momentum

How do you get started in fitness? Setting yourself up for success is just that- setting up. It isn’t the action of starting.

The next best practice from animal trainers we will discuss helps get us started. Behavior Momentum.

When teaching an animal a new behavior, the trainer starts with the smallest, simplest, easiest step possible. If a trainer wanted to teach a dolphin to jump out of the water (called a bow or breach), they start by getting the dolphin to touch a target pole. Then, with the dolphin continuing to follow the target, the trainer can raise the target higher and higher until the dolphin needs to get some momentum in order to jump out of the water to touch the target.

When we created our step-by-step plan for developing healthy habits, we started small as well. But how do you move forward from just GOING to the gym to DOING something at the gym? Part of it is just pushing forward. 3, 2, 1- GO! From there, behavior momentum will help out tremendously.

Behavior momentum is seeing your success at the smaller, easily achieved steps, and gaining confidence to move forward. It’s like, your brain realizes how easy it is to do this one thing, so why not try more?

Animals in Motion

These instances can be part of the training process, where the animal makes progress quickly after a slow start, because they experience success. Or it can be part of a training session, where the trainer asks for easy things to give the animal confidence before asking for the new behavior, or something more difficult.

Often, when I struggled with a complicated behavior with an animal, I resorted to behavior momentum to build on their success, and actually get them excited to do more. To get the beluga whales to get up onto the scale, I would start my session asking them only to target my hand. Then I’d bring my hand about five inches down the scale. Each success the belugas experienced made them excited. They got fish, praise, and rub downs. By the time my supervisor was ready to weigh them, rather than ask this seemingly impossible task of hauling themselves all the way onto the scale, I asked them to go just a little bit further than previously, which they gladly did.

I saw this behavior with other animals, too. Especially in the shows. Sometimes, just before a super high jump, I watched dolphins do a smaller bow along the side. It honestly seemed like they were gaining momentum to propel themselves as high as they could jump. Behavior momentum.

Success Breeds Success

In fitness, I see behavior momentum all the time with my students and clients. Patsy*, a regular participant in my classes, wanted to do a box jump. We started her off with a bumper plate (used for barbell movements, but is perfect for beginner jumpers). You could see on Pasty’s face she wasn’t even sure she could make THAT. But she tried, and cleared the edge of the bumper by several inches. “You want to go up?” I asked. Within one class period, Patsy progressed from stepping onto a box to jumping onto an only slightly lower box. Because she used the success of the previous attempts to propel her forward. That is the very essence of behavior momentum.

Nowadays, Patsy still uses behavior momentum when box jumps are included in the workout. She asks me to be her crutch for her first jump. Which I always happily oblige. Because it gives her the momentum to keep trying after she experiences the success with my help. Deep down, we both know she can do it, but using the behavior momentum principle is a positive way to push yourself a little further. It works for her, and that matters a lot.

Just One More

I don’t like the idea of “tricking” ourselves into working out, but there is something about behavior momentum which does seem a little devious to me. I don’t mean literally. What I mean is it’s actually remarkable how often I DON’T feel like working out, so I tell myself I’ll only take a 5 minute walk. But by minute 4, I am loving the cool weather, the scenery, or just the fresh air, and I keep going.

Or, I tell myself instead of driving to the library, which is literally just down the street (albeit, I have to cross a relatively busy road), I’ll walk. Here’s the thing. It’s only a 20 minute walk, but guess what? I end up walking back home, too (I mean, how else am I going to get home?). Or I go to the grocery store, which is another five minute walk.

It’s not so much “tricking” yourself, but allowing behavior momentum to help you out. I loved working with animals this way, and it’s a better way to get into the motion of fitness.

Try it out. See how much momentum you can use to propel your fitness forward.

*names changed to protect the “innocent”

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