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How Intrinsic Rewards Can Help You Achieve Your Health Goals

What if I told you that you could become more healthy by being more selfish? Sounds too good to be true, right?  Not a bit! A bit of selfishness can absolutely help you achieve your health goals, as long as your indulgence comes with intrinsic rewards.

Whether you want to stop smoking, exercise more, sleep better, or lose 20 pounds, intrinsic rewards will help you to succeed.

But what are intrinsic rewards, and how do they relate to habit formation? Let’s begin by talking a bit about their counterparts, which are extrinsic rewards.

What are Extrinsic Rewards?

Extrinsic rewards are ones that come from other people, rather than from within. Fame and money are two common extrinsic rewards, but other examples include:

  • A beer at the end of a race.
  • Random compliments when your outfit is on point. 
  • A reprieve from nagging when you do something your spouse has been asking of you.

Everyone loves an extrinsic reward, whether it’s a shiny new object or the admiration of others. Extrinsic rewards can help motivate you to make healthy changes, but they’re not enough.

Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I was burned out on exercise. I’d begrudgingly lace up my sneakers each day and spend hours trying to talk myself into working out, with about 65% success. I hated every single minute of those workouts.

But what went wrong?

My primary motivation to work out was looking good. I wanted to fit into my skinny jeans after having babies. I wanted abs of steel. In my quest to build a body worthy of an Oxygen cover, I completely lost sight of the intrinsic rewards of exercise. Not to mention, exercise started stressing me out!

What are Intrinsic Rewards?

Thankfully, my love for exercise is stronger than ever before, thanks to the power of intrinsic rewards.

Intrinsic rewards are those that come from within. They’re the feelings that you get when you do something that’s just for you. These feelings are what keep me going to the gym morning after morning, and they can do the same for you.

Let me give you some examples:

  •  I feel strong and capable when I lift more weight than I thought I could.
  • I get to connect with my closest friends.
  •  I leave the gym energized and ready to take on the day.
  •  I feel less stressed.
  •  I am better able to keep up with my kids.
  •  I feel good about doing something healthy for my heart and my muscles.

This shift in mindset made the gym my happy place (rather than a place of dread). I now exercise every day without even thinking much about it, when I once spent hours per day trying to motivate.

Do I still want flat abs and buns of steel? Heck yeah, but not as much as I want connection, confidence, and calmness!

Finding Balance Between External Rewards and Intrinsic Rewards

When it comes to habit formation, there’s value to both external and internal rewards. However, some studies suggest that the likelihood of long-term success increases when intrinsic rewards outweigh extrinsic rewards.

For example, a 1996 study looked at the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards on weight loss in 128 adults with obesity. Researchers administered several tests to assess participants’ motivations for joining a 6-month weight loss program.

Compared to those motivated by external rewards, participants who had autonomous motivations for participating (including intrinsic rewards) (1):

  • Attended more group meetings.
  •  Lost more weight.
  • Were more successful at maintaining weight loss at a 23-month follow-up visit.

This is consistent with other studies in that it suggests that people who are motivated by intrinsic rewards (and autonomy in general) are more likely to achieve their goals (2, 3). 

So what does this mean for your health and fitness goals? Have that post-race beer, if it gets you to the starting line. Just don’t lose sight of the intrinsic rewards of running the race.

Now, friends, I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the intrinsic rewards that help you to stay healthy? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

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