Immediate satisfaction is an often-maligned idea in the current state of the fitness world. And often for good reason. You were right when you realized you won’t be able to lose those last 50 pounds in 5 weeks before your friend’s wedding. It’s just not possible. And if so, it would not be in a healthy manner. But what if I were to tell you that immediate satisfaction is paramount to your weight loss journey? The truth is, to make the habitual action you are trying to create more consistent, you must make it immediately satisfying to your experience.
To understand first why this component of behavior change is so crucial, we must first understand the brain and its reward pathway. And most importantly, how to use it to our advantage. The pleasure or reward pathway begins at the ventral tegmental area (or VTA). (Khan Academy) When you experience pleasure, this area of the brain produces the neurotransmitter dopamine, often regarded as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. (Watson, 2021) The VTA sends dopamine to quite a few areas of the brain, including: the amygdala, dealing with emotions; the nucleus accumbens, dealing with motor function; and the prefrontal cortex, dealing with attention and planning. When the activity you are performing causes a release in dopamine, your brain begins to associate the activity with pleasure, guaranteeing that you will repeat the behavior.
The reason that this is important to behavior change and habit formation is that you must find a way to create a sense of satisfaction and reward that will cause you to continue to do so. By making the action satisfying, you will increase the odds that the behavior will be repeated. (Clear, 2018) This can be seen in history with such examples as toothpaste. We all know that brushing our teeth is a healthy habit, just as we know that working out is, but often knowledge is not enough. It was not until toothpaste companies started adding satisfying flavors such as mint and cinnamon that we saw an increase in usage. This is because the taste and feel of the freshness of our breath gave us satisfaction that plain toothpaste would not. (Duhigg, 2014) This is just as true in the fitness industry, and from this point on I will be addressing not only people who are looking to lose 50 pounds, but personal trainers of the industry as well.
Listen up well, coaches of the world: small, victories, matter. Not only is it crucial that the person attempting to lose 50 pounds finds satisfaction from coming to the gym, eating well, and getting rest and recovery; it is crucial that we as health coaches provide them with that same sense of satisfaction. As a tenured personal trainer, I have witnessed the power of making not only the experience of working with us fun and satisfying, but celebrating small differences that our clients may not have noticed themselves. This is a key element of coaching. Make sure they know when their technique is looking better than it did last week. Celebrate their ability to jump one more inch than the previous month. Reward their effort and you will see that the satisfaction of coming into the gym increases dramatically. And for those of you who do not work with a coach, reward yourself. Take tally of your records on certain exercises, take pictures of yourself from month to month to see your results, give yourself a high-five for just MAKING it into the gym. Because you deserve it. You deserve to live a happy and healthy life, and bear the fruits of the labor and sweat equity you put into the gym every time you come in. Habits are not easy to form, life changes are even more difficult. And I promise you that if you do this, working out habitually will become easier and easier. Just because you have not lost 50 pounds in 5 weeks like you wanted, does not mean that you cannot experience immediate satisfaction along the way to achieving a longer and more difficult goal.
Crossfit Level 1 Trainer