Positive Reinforcement is Not a Burger After the Gym, Part 3 (of a Trilogy)

Positive reinforcement is not a burger after you go to the gym. That is not the essence of fitness through operant conditioning.

I’m not saying you CAN’T have a burger after you go to the gym. I’m not even saying you SHOULDN’T have a burger after you go to the gym. It’s your life, and your fitness. You do what you want. I’m saying a burger after the gym shouldn’t be the sole reason you do a workout. It should not be your only motivation.

Last post, I shared how to find other ways to reinforce yourself besides food. Really, what it comes down to is a paradigm shift in how we treat our daily activities. Instead of just doing what we want, when we want, and buying whatever we want whenever we want, I encourage you to pair these activities with fitness and make them reinforcement.

My husband loves to play online video games. I think I used to get annoyed very early on in our marriage, but it really doesn’t bother me anymore. Because video games aren’t his life. They are his reinforcement. He only plays his game when he has finished his major tasks on his daily list. Chris does work, art, and a workout every day. And he doesn’t play his game until at least those three major accomplishments are completed. So, to reward himself for a day well spent, he plays his game while I fix dinner, or for a short time after dinner. This is a perfect example of a paradigm shift which makes something enjoyable, but not completely necessary, a really good motivator.

But what’s WRONG with using food as an incentive?

Okay, okay. You know, I’m not your mom. I’m not even your personal trainer. If you want to use food as your reinforcement, go ahead, but read my stance on food as a reward first. Then decide if you want to risk it. But I won’t stop you.

My main problem is the slippery slope we create when we use food as our primary motivation for doing something good for us. There’s a fine line between using food as a reward, and depriving ourselves if/when a goal isn’t met.

This is precisely why food isn’t the only way animal trainers reinforce their furry, flippered, or feathered friends. Deprivation does NOT help develop strong, trusting, positive relationships. If food was the only motivator for animals, then the only time we could do ANY behaviors was when those animals are hungry.

But, instead, trainers rely on positive reinforcement and developing a healthy, strong relationship with their animals. And they don’t RELY on food as the way to get animals to do the behaviors, they rely on a multitude of reinforcers- attention, ice, rub downs, toys, free time to do what they want, new enrichment, playtimes, and even simple words of encouragement. Food is not the driving factor for performance.

Animals get fed regardless if they perform. Their meals are not contingent on their behaviors.

I feel the same is important with fitness. If you planned on a burger (or pizza, or whatever) for dinner or lunch after the gym, DO IT. You need to eat.

Let me repeat- YOU NEED TO EAT!!!! I don’t care that burgers are not the healthiest thing in the world. If you planned on eating burgers for dinner, HAVE THE BURGER.

Here’s what tends to happen when we use food as reinforcement and a reward:

You didn’t meet your minimum criteria to receive reinforcement…what do you do? Well, in operant conditioning, if the goal isn’t met, you don’t get reinforcement. If food is your reinforcement, and you didn’t meet your goal, are you going to NOT EAT? This is what we do in a punishment mindset.

Or, we starve ourselves so we can “earn” the pizza. Dude, EAT THE PIZZA.
Positive reinforcement is something we give ourselves to motivate us to continue our progress. It’s the little bonuses- the song after the gym, the bubble bath after a long day of kicking ass, the 30 minutes undisturbed quiet time to read your favorite romance series, the video game after your masterpiece day.

Your meals, whether they are the healthiest dinner or the guilty pleasure snack, those are your fuel. Those are NECESSITIES. Make the switch. Change having a snack or a meal as reinforcement to something you reinforce. Do the activities you typically don’t think about as reinforcement as incentives for a healthier lifestyle.

Start making the shift, and let your fitness go to new heights. Have fun, and be good to yourself.


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