Behavioral Influences on Gym Mentality

Written by Christina Baker, Psy.D.

It’s a pretty simple idea, right? You go the gym. You feel good. You look good. Logically, I know that if I continue to go to class consistently, in a few months’ time I will be rewarded physically and mentally. So then, why is it so easy to talk myself out of class and chow down on some Ben and Jerry’s?

Immediate versus delayed gratification (reinforcement). My Ben and Jerry’s pint of half baked is immediately satisfying; its positive reinforcement of flavorful goodness encourages me to continue to raise that spoon to my mouth over and over…until the pint is gone! Ice cream (to me and 99% of the population) is an immediate reinforcer because the response of the happy juice it triggers to flow through my veins is instant; And due to this instant response, I’m more likely to engage in that behavior again. Let’s compare this to Kyle’s green juice. About two hours after drinking this concoction (the actual time it takes me to drink it anyway), I feel energized and refreshed. This delayed onset of gratification makes me less prone to lift the glass to my lips and drink the liquid. The more time between the behavior and the (positive) response, the less likely the person is to engage in that behavior. Some psychologists believe the majority of our learning comes from associations made between behaviors and responses from selfs/environments (the fancy term is “operant conditioning,” if you’re curious).

So how does this apply to the gym? Unless you have been well conditioned to get your butt in the gym consistently, the gym is a form of delayed gratification for most of us. I personally don’t feel good in class; in fact, I often feel like I’m dying. The good comes later. Like when I’m not winded going up the second flight of stairs, or I can carry all the groceries in on one trip. But because this gratification comes so long after the act of working out, I’m less likely to engage in the behavior of putting on my sneaks in the first place.

I get my issue(s), now what? The key is to build personal reinforcement for yourself that is more immediate and salient for you. We are all unique little creatures, with different likes and dislikes. Find something that works for you. Maybe it’s a trip to Mr. Frosty’s after a hard Saturday morning (I hear coach Viv highly recommends it). Maybe it’s watching the next episode of (insert cult classic TV show here) after a workout. Maybe it’s a star on a little chart you made on your way to the goal of attending 20 classes this month. The key is to find something that you associate to class attendance, until the delayed gratification of feeling good after a workout approximates closer and closer to being immediately satisfying. Because that WILL happen; it’s science, duh. I would like to point out that verbal praise is also often an immediate positive reinforcer. Our coaches do a wonderful job of giving specific verbal praise. We as members can do that for one another too, knowing there are some days we would all rather be at home eating another pint from Vermont’s finest.

Christina Baker is a Doctor of Psychology and a member of Performance360.