My son, who’s 14, has been wanting to get in better shape for quite some time. We’ve talked about good methods and about how to change diet and exercise to lose weight and build muscle, but he’s found it difficult to get moving. Often he’d begin to do something–say go walking every day or track everything he eats–but give up soon afterward. I suspect that part of the problem was not being sure that what he was doing would even work.
Motivating other people
My study and writing hasn’t generally been about motivating other people: it’s been about motivating ourselves. The big difference between those two tasks, if you ask me, is that when we’re motivating ourselves, we have direct access to the brain in question, and when motivating others, we don’t. Since the means I talk about have to do with our own thinking and attitudes, they’re not as useful to try to use on other people.
Still, I had been supporting my son as much as I could, offering information when he asked for it, volunteering techniques for making better progress, and talking through obstacles. But I wasn’t going to try to make him get more fit through imposing rules. If he was going to learn a healthy lifestyle, he’d have to decide to adopt healthy habits on his own. While I buy healthy food and make sure he has access to exercise activities, I’m pretty sure going beyond that and trying to force him to get fit would backfire in the long run (and maybe in the short run, too).
So what did I do? I decided to try an experiment, and I bet him a hundred dollars he couldn’t lose 10 pounds in 8 weeks.
10 pounds in 8 weeks isn’t a record-breaking goal, but it’s pretty solid weight loss, enough to know for sure that better fitness is possible and to see visible improvement. As to the hundred dollars, I reasoned that if he wanted to participate in some kind of exercise program for 8 weeks that cost $100, I’d scrape that money together in that situation. I’d be willing to do the same in this special case if he were going to exercise on his own.
He took the bet. He didn’t have anything like $100, so we established in the beginning that if he lost, he’d be paying it off in trade: I have plenty of little things he can do to help me with my own projects.
Yet I made it clear from the beginning that I wasn’t rooting for him to lose: instead, I’d do anything I could think of to help him win. I didn’t know what the long-term effects of winning the bet might be, but I figured if he won (I was pretty sure that was possible), he’d at least gain confidence that he could lose weight whenever he really made up his mind to, and there’s good research to support the idea that belief in one’s ability to accomplish something is a crucial building block for motivation.
How he did
The first two or three weeks were not promising. He lost a pound or two early on, but he stopped there. He didn’t seem strongly motivated, even though mentally he had already spent the $100.
Somewhere around the fourth week, though, his attitude changed. We had been talking about how his chances of winning the bet were weakening every day. At the rate he was going, he’d lose the bet.
Spurred on by thoughts of not getting the things he wanted to buy with the money and by worry about how long it would take to work off his debt if he lost, he got in gear. Instead of generally intending to exercise every once in a while, he exercised every day that he could, mostly cardio with some strength training. He stopped asking for and eating junk food and fast food: where they had been uncommon treats before, now he cut them entirely out of his diet. He chose salads without dressing for lunches at school and stuck with lean, healthy options at home. When he didn’t know whether or not a food was good for weight loss, he asked me, and I did my best to give him good guidelines. He avoided most carbs and focused on fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and a few whole grains. He stopped drinking juice and lemonade and stuck with spring water. And he started losing weight.
In fact, he lost weight very quickly: several pounds a week. He still had two weeks to spare when his weight loss hit ten pounds. He repeated the winning weigh-in with me as a witness, and was ceremoniously awarded his prize. It was spent on the wished-for items within hours.
I was hoping that he might develop some good habits in the course of his weight loss experiment, but that was based on the idea that he would adopt a healthy regimen over the whole eight weeks, not on the idea that he would lose almost all the weight in a self-disciplined rush in the middle. He had gotten down three weeks of good habits, but for complex behaviors, three weeks is rarely long enough for a habit to form (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“).
So it wasn’t surprising, though it was disappointing, to see my son go back pretty much to his old habits of eating (although he’s a little more restrained about things like juice and desserts these days). It’s encouraging, though, that he is still doing fairly regular exercise. It appears that his short flirtation with weight loss may have gotten him over some reservations about exercise, which matches my experience: once you start doing it regularly, especially if you can find a mode that’s pleasurable for you, you no longer work so hard to avoid it.
So, was it a good idea?
In the end, I’m going to call this one a limited success. It certainly isn’t an ideal approach, since it didn’t do much of anything to change his internal attitudes or supply him with a long-burning passion for fitness (something that’s very difficult to even do for ourselves, let alone other people). It also didn’t turn out to get him doing healthy things long enough for them to become habits.
However, there’s no denying that the bet enabled him to lose 10 pounds on his own, and it certainly taught him some things about his ability to motivate himself when there are stakes that matter to him, about exercise, and about healthy living. If sooner or later he comes to feel that he really wants to commit to a healthier lifestyle, he’ll know how, and he’ll have confidence he can do it again on his own.
Photo by Todd Kravos