How to Use Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation for Weight Loss

Experience Life-Long Motivaiton

I recently came across a study which looked at different weight loss programs and their success rates.


Funny enough, there was no significant difference was found between the success of one program versus another.


In fact, the biggest indicator of success with a diet program came from the individual’s motivation. (study)


In psychology, there are many different types of motivation that people engage in. The kind of motivation used is influenced by internal, external, and environmental factors.


The two big ones - and the two I want to cover in this article - are extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.


While both can be effectively used to motivate you to lose weight, there are situations where extrinsic motivation can be better than intrinsic motivation and vice versus.


For instance, extrinsic motivation is ideal for short-term motivation whereas intrinsic motivation is better served for long-term motivation.


This article explains each and how to apply them in your weight loss journey to get the most motivational benefit possible.




The Good and Bad of Extrinsic Motivation


Extrinsic motivation is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation is typically physical or comes from someone else other than yourself.

Extrinsic (aka External) motivation operates on an "if/then" style of phrasing. For example:


"If I lose 15 pounds, then I can buy a new wardrobe." 


"If I workout during the week, then I can go out to eat on the weekend."


When it's a Good Thing


Extrinsic motivation can be a good thing when it is used for short-term motivation.


Things, like dropping ten pounds, fitting into your high school jeans, or having other's notice your weight loss progress, can all be incredibly motivating.


Weight loss requires a lot of positive reinforcement.


While motivation from physical changes and approval from others can diminish in time, there is no denying its power in the early stages of weight loss.


This is one reason why I am actually a proponent of using a body scale.


Some fitness gurus shun weight loss scales out of fear that their clients will become slaves to the numbers.


I, on the other hand, believe you can still find motivation through using a body scale without creating an obsession.


Here's how you do it:


Rather than judging your progress from daily weigh-ins, take a seven-day average and look at your body weight change on a weekly basis.


As I am sure you know, daily weigh-ins are rarely linear. Typically, you go up and down 2 pounds as the week goes on.


Weight yourself each day, but don't analyze your progress until you get a weekly average.


Weight loss progress will appear more linear and constant looking at weekly numbers rather than daily ones.


When it's a Bad Thing


Extrinsic motivation becomes a bad thing whenever it is used as primary, long-term motivation.


A lot of folks fall into the trap of losing weight solely for aesthetic purposes.


They only care to drop weight to look good.


While there is nothing wrong with this (who wouldn't want to look sexier!?), trying to fuel weight loss on external motivation alone can only end in failure.


You'll either:


  1. Reach your goal but lose motivation having achieved your objective (which could lead to weight relapse) or
  2. The external reward won't feel as good as you thought it would once you reach it.


This could lead to depression or loss of motivation to continue living healthy.




The Good and Bad of Intrinsic Motivation


Intrinsic motivation is driven by enjoyment in a task itself.


Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation comes from within an individual rather than on external influences or a desire for a physical reward.


For example, instead of working out to get a six-pack, an intrinsically motivated person works out for the pure pleasure they get from performing the act.


Working out is something they love to do and get enjoyment from.


When it's a Good Thing


When it comes to long-term weight loss success, intrinsic motivation is a must.


You see, intrinsic motivation induces a sense of self-satisfaction.


People who are intrinsically motivated to lose weight tend to find satisfaction from the physiological and psychological components of being healthier rather than from the physical change.


The increased energy, mood, and physical freedom they get from losing weight fills them with a constant stream of intrinsic motivation.


In order to be successful in the long-term with your weight loss endeavors, you need to identify and address factors that intrinsically motivate you to keep going.


When It's a Bad Thing


There is never really a time where intrinsic motivation is a bad thing, rather, there are times when this type of motivation isn't "powerful" enough to elicit change.


This is particularly the case when it comes to short-term weight loss motivation.


It takes time to reach a point where you find intrinsic motivation from working out and eating healthy. Trying to use intrinsic motivation alone is usually not enough to keep you from eating that extra donut your co-worker brought to work.


In this case, extrinsic motivation to look sexy or fit into a new pair of jeans can have a more powerful effect on keeping you accountable towards your diet.




Utilizing Both Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation


As you can see, both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be beneficial for losing weight.


For short-term & quick bursts of motivation, external rewards such as losing ten pounds or getting more attention from others can be extremely useful for keeping you accountable.


However, using external rewards like impressing others or physically looking better as a primary source of motivation is often fleeting, and is typically unfulfilling in the end.


When you are looking for long-term & lasting motivation, you'll want to utilize intrinsic motivation.


Internal goals such as feeling healthier and enjoyment from exercising are what will keep you motivated long after all of your short-term goals have passed.


When used correctly, both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can create a constant source of motivation that can be effective in the short-term as well as the long-term phases of your health journey.

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