Positive Reinforcement is Not a Burger After the Gym (Part 1)

Applying operant conditioning to your fitness program is a lot of fun. It’s especially fun when you focus on positive reinforcement as your primary method of teaching yourself healthy new habits.

There is a particular caveat to this method, though. Rewarding ourselves can be a bit confusing. Often when I bring up positive reinforcement, I have excited participants exclaim “you mean, like having (fro-yo/McDonalds/donuts/whatever) after working out?”

Well, no.

Let me be clear, if you want a burger or donuts after going to the gym, do it. I’m not stopping you. But don’t let a burger be the reason you go to the gym.

Let me see if I can explain using animals as an example. Many people see animals perform a behavior, and get fed treats after the behavior. Many of those people assume the only reason the animal performed the behavior is because they got a treat. That’s only a half-truth. And it’s a sloppy half-truth, at that.

For some behaviors, no matter how much food you offer the animal, if they don’t trust and respect their trainer, they ain’t doing it. Other times, people miss the way trainers REALLY reinforce their animals. Sure, there might be food, but what often sticks with the animal is the trainer’s reaction, their affection and personal relationship quirks.

When I worked with dolphins, I was in charge of caring for the dominant male in a group of 20 animals. “Thor” could have mated with ANY female, eaten fish from guests, and done whatever the hell he wanted, whenever he wanted. But he worked for me, even when it meant getting a blood sample, or receiving medicine, or being uncomfortable for a short amount of time. Why? Because I knew him, and I knew what he liked. I learned how Thor liked to get massaged on his back, right in front of his dorsal fin. He loved it when I karate chopped his back. Thor learned he could get a fish anywhere, but he could only get his dolphin massage from me.

So, if I managed to get a dolphin to perform amazing behaviors, for his own health and wellness, and I didn’t NEED food to reinforce him, SURELY we can achieve the same thing with our fitness. But this takes a little bit of soul-searching. Because our immediate knee-jerk reaction when we think of what to use as reinforcement is some sort of food treat. And never like, a HEALTHY food treat. (For the record, I would KINDA be against even using healthy food as a reinforcement. More on that later, though)

So, PJ, stop telling us what NOT to do, and tell us what TO DO. Geez! Haven’t I learned anything from my own teachings?

To discover what ways you can reinforce yourself, you need to figure out what (besides food) YOU find reinforcing. What can you do or give yourself that will increase the likelihood of that particular behavior occurring again?

Believe it or not, the answer can be super simple. In his book “Atomic Habits”, James Clear shows positive affirmations are proven to boost self-esteem, and improve performance in behavior. So, giving yourself a hi-five, a fist pump, or looking at yourself in the mirror and telling your reflection you’re awesome are simple, easy, (and free) ways to improve your behavior.

But who wants to build their entire fitness off of pats on the back?

For bigger, more complex habits, or for making huge leaps in progress, you can use other ways to maintain motivation. Say you went to the gym and had an incredible workout. While you were there, you heard a great song which helped move you. A great way to reward your gym visit and motivate you to keep going is to download that song and add it to your playlist.

If you have gone ten days in a row remembering to floss your teeth every time you brushed them, do something special, without damaging your hard work (really? You want to eat chocolate AFTER brushing and flossing your teeth?). How about rewarding yourself with a new toothbrush? You could even use positive reinforcement to promote a healthier planet by getting a bamboo toothbrush.

To celebrate your habit of meditating for 10 minutes, stop by the store and get a new tea, or incense, or something which will maintain motivation to keep meditating.

Find what you love in life, and use these as ways to influence your healthy behavior. It doesn’t have to go in your belly to be positive reinforcement. Let food be its own reward by developing a healthy relationship with fitness, nutrition, and wellness. More on that very soon.




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