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Do you want to start exercising? Do you want to exercise more? How do people who lose massive amounts of weight, or run a marathon for the first time, do it? One of the strategies is a simple hack of the human mind. It’s so innate that you’ve actually been doing it since the day you were born. It’s time to take this simple strategy that’s been controlling your every behaviour up until now and make it work for you.
Many of the concepts I learnt during my psychology studies were about why humans think, feel and behave the way they do. One of these topics was learning. Understanding why and how we learn is an essential component of psychology and the education system is based on this.
The most fundamental components of learning are classical and operant conditioning.
Classical conditioning comes from the story of Pavlov’s dogs. Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist interested in learning about the digestive system. He was researching the digestive system of dogs when he discovered that every time he rang a bell to let the dogs know it was time to eat, they would salivate. Initially, they would salivate at the sight and smell of the food. However, over a very short period of time, they began to salivate at the sound of the bell, even when the food was not presented. He stumbled across a phenomena later to become known as classical conditioning.
Operant conditioning is a little more complex. In operant conditioning, behaviours are emitted on the environment, as opposed to elicited from the environment, as they are in classical conditioning. Operant conditioning involves reinforcement, punishment and extinction. This is where you can use this basic human psychology to hack your mind and foster the results you want.
How to Create a Reward System for Exercising
Before we delve into the four components of operant conditioning, let’s first consider what reinforcement and punishment actually mean.
Reinforcement: When a behaviour is made more likely to occur again.
Punishment: When a behaviour is made less likely to occur again.
- Positive Reinforcement
Definition: Give something in order to make it more likely to occur again.
Example: Be awarded an environmental consequence such as receiving payment for work completed.
In terms of exercise: Put money into a piggy bank to go towards something you really want. Notice the really is in bold. This has to be something that really excites you. Something that you really want. It has to foster more motivation when the desire to go off track rears its ugly head.
- Negative Reinforcement
Definition: Take something away in order to make it more likely to occur again.
Example: Remove an aversive environmental consequence such as hot air on a hot day by putting the air conditioner on.
In terms of exercise: Remove burpees from your workout regime if you don’t like them. Another exercise I hear people say they don’t like is running. Remove running from your program. (I suggest replacing it with something less aversive rather than removing it all together though).
- Positive Punishment
Definition: Give something in order to make it less likely to occur again.
Example: Give an adversive environmental consequence such as a fine for speeding.
In terms of exercise: Eat something you know tastes absolutely dreadful or make yourself do something you hate doing. It might be scrubbing the walls or cleaning the toilet if that’s something you don’t do regularly and you don’t like doing.
- Negative Punishment
Definition: Take something away in order to make it less likely to occur again.
Example: Remove a rewarding environmental consequence such as not letting your teenage child take the car on the weekend for not having completed their school assignment.
In terms of exercise: No TV for the night (or 24 hours) if TV is something you love to watch.
I suggest ranking your actions so the smaller positive actions attract smaller rewards and the bigger positive actions attract bigger rewards - and vice versa for negative actions with their punishments. This will help with encouraging you to take bigger actions too.
What rewards/punishments have you used in the past to change your behaviours?
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