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  • Writer's picturePhil Murray

Why Have a Reward System in Fitness?

Let’s just come out and say it, life can be hard.

Going to work, maintaining relationships, meeting all the needs of family, fixing that leaky sink, taking care of your pets, it can be a lot! Trying to add self-improvement to that list sometimes seems impossible.

But self-improvement is simply too important to ignore. Investing in yourself and making efforts to improve is well worth the effort it takes to figure out how to include it within your already busy life.

By allowing yourself to fill your own cup and grow, brings about several benefits that increase your ability to do all the other things present in life more efficiently and with positivity.

This starts with self-care and building a healthy lifestyle. When we are healthy, we feel better, move better, and have a much better view of the world around us. The drag of punching the clock only to come home without the energy to do the house chores or begrudgingly pulling yourself out of bed to let the dog out, will be turned into the joy of helping others, staying productive, and happily getting your steps in by taking that dog for a stroll.

Where do you start?

When you begin to realize the need to flip the script and are ready to stop letting life yank you around, and instead want to get out in front of it, grab the horns, and fulfill each commitment with happiness, that is the time to look at the habits you have.

Our habits are where we find identity.

Look at these small example lists of habits that could be present within the lives of two different people, and you can probably recognize each person’s identity.

Example 1:

· Hitting the snooze a few times then rushing out each morning

· Skipping lunch at work (because they are always behind)

· Never writing things down

· Gets home late

· Procrastinates with projects around the house

· Watches TV

· Goes to bed late

Example 2:

· Gets up on time

· Has lunch and goes for a walk during their work break

· Keeps an organized schedule and notes

· Leaves work on time

· Sets a certain amount of time for projects in the evening

· Reads

· Goes to bed on time

It is pretty clear that the person in example 2 has put effort into living a much more productive day-to-day life through some small efforts that have transformed into habits towards a healthy lifestyle.

When we envision going through the paces of each example, one feels full of energy and positivity while the other feels like a routine of struggle and burnout.

That’s not to say it’s bad to watch some TV from time to time (here I come football season!) or that things don’t get away from you at work and it’s a struggle getting home on time occasionally. Life can be crazy and full of changes!

But what we can take away from this is that habits, like getting up on time, staying organized, and always learning (such as through reading), can be the type of ingredients present in a lifestyle that identifies as, not only healthy and productive, but happier!

Building and breaking habits

There is a framework for this that we learn in James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits” that goes like this:

To create a new habit, you need to: 1. Make it obvious 2. Make it attractive 3. Make it easy 4. Make it satisfying.

The framework to break a bad habit is simply the inverse of this: 1. Make it invisible 2. Make it unattractive 3. Make it difficult 4. Make it unsatisfying.

Now each of these points deserve a larger conversation, there are so many tools and applications to be learned throughout the process of creating and breaking habits. But today we are just going to focus on one piece; the 4th point of creating a new habit. Or in other words, we are going to talk about having a healthy reward system with the goal of creating a healthier lifestyle.

(If you want to read more about the habits framework you can check out James Clear’s book or read more here).

Why have a reward system?

As mentioned above, there are a few steps to creating a new habit – but none of them function very well towards that goal without each other. So why do we need to “make it satisfying”?

The simple answer is when you satisfy (or reward) an action you make, you start to associate that action with the reward and make it easier to perform that action again the next time you are presented with the choice.

Let’s look at an example: if your goal is to get up on time, you may give yourself a reward with a latté that morning instead of your regular drip coffee. But not on days where you hit the snooze and find yourself behind.

When you reward yourself your body will release dopamine, a chemical that helps you feel happy and regulate your mood. A hit of dopamine will reinforce in your body and mind that the action of getting up earlier is worthwhile. You will physically and mentally look forward to it and it will begin to create a habit over time.

Are there any other reasons to have a reward system?

The role of rewards in building habits is crucial to training yourself to make hard decisions, after all none of us naturally ENJOY pulling ourselves out of bed. We need to train ourselves to appreciate that action.

But there are other benefits too, such as mental health. It is healthy to implement enjoyable things in your life. It breeds positivity and helps you see the world from a place of contentment and not resentment.

If we are always restricting ourselves from enjoyment, it can be easy to be negative and resent others that have the things you are not allowing into your life.

When should you reward yourself?

By definition, a reward is something given in recognition of your effort or achievement. If you give a reward before the effort or achievement you are not using it as a tactic for developing the healthy behavior that we are trying to obtain.

That being said, you should reward yourself more often than you think! Allow good things to be part of your life – as Dwayne Johnson says, “Don’t cheat yourself, treat yourself” :)

Treating yourself isn’t a selfish behavior, it is a healthy one. But we can get the most out of our rewards when we use them in a way that encourages the kind of behaviors that we want to identify with, such as starting your day on time.

Early in the process of building healthy habits, treat yourself often. This will aid in training your brain to associate the effort you are making with that reward. As the effort takes less and less, well, effort, you can start to move the frequency of the reward (especially if the reward you are using costs money and you don’t want to do it forever such as a Starbucks run).

When you first start to work on getting up on time, maybe the Starbucks run is a daily reward. Then as it becomes easier to get up on time you begin making it a Friday morning reward for doing well all week.

Transitioning the reward system from instant to delayed gratification

Which leads me to the next stage, the goal is that the action becomes a habit. You start to get out of bed more easily because the real reward is the healthy lifestyle that you see taking effect in your life through getting up and starting your day off right.

The reward system is a process to train yourself to eventually do the thing with a lot less effort. Think of when you are training a dog to sit. You give them a treat every time they sit on command, after a little while, you start only giving them the treat every few times they sit on command, and eventually not at all. You have trained them to sit on command because they see it makes you happy, not just because they get a treat anymore – but they needed that early incentive to perform the task.

We are wired to want instant gratification, consider when you play video games or scroll social media – you are getting instant gratification by the game or entertainment you are partaking of. That is why those things easily become habitual.

The trick is to receive the instant gratification through rewards you will see now while you wait to get the delayed gratification you will see later which the healthy habit or routine yields in your life. As the delayed rewards start to display themselves you wean off the instant gratification.

Benefits of a reward system

Along the way in this process, a thoughtful reward system will help bring other benefits too. Here are a few other things you will notice by implementing a reward system:

· Procrastinating less

· Focus and deliberation increase

· Eliminating distractions

· Breeding positivity

You can see where small changes will start to benefit you in big ways!

Ways to reward yourself

The million-dollar question. What are the specific ways that you should reward yourself? Well, the answer is… it depends. Not exactly a definitive answer at the end of an article that you just spent several minutes reading! I realize that, but the truth is simply that the actual reward needs to be specific to you.

Everyone is different and responds to each reward differently. If you are not a coffee drinker then the Starbucks run may not work, you need to find something that will incentivize you in a meaningful way.

But here are a few tips to guide you to choosing reward that may work for you:

· Stay within your means.

Sometimes a reward can ask you to spend money. Such as going to the movie theater or going out for dinner. While those can be great rewards, make sure that the reward you are attaching to your goal is reasonably within your budget and you are able to follow through with delivering the reward.

· Start with a reward that is easy to maintain for the common rewards.

Going on a road trip to Yellowstone National Park may be something you have always wanted to do, but it won’t work for daily motivation. It takes planning, expenses, time away, and you can’t make it happen often enough to build a habit with. So, save that for a big end of the year reward, or maybe even just do the trip regardless and find something else for habit reward.

Rewarding yourself with muffin for breakfast or a round of Angry Birds is more sustainable for the regular system.

· But big rewards are okay sometimes too!

As the healthy habits start to take hold and you transition away from the daily rewards, it may be time for that Yellowstone trip or maybe Six Flags is more up your alley. Keep it within your means as said earlier but celebrating accomplishments in a memorable way is deserving of your time and money too.

· Go with something that really perks your ears up.

What are your favorite hobbies? Or what is something you always wanted to get into? For me getting a new record to add to my collection would be pretty incentivizing! Maybe it's an outing to the bowling lanes or sleeping in on Saturday for you, whatever it is, be sure to find something that speaks to you so you can get the most motivation out of it.

· Include your family and friends when you’re able.

Involving your significant other or friends in your goals is twofold. First, it brings a level of accountability to the table. It is easier to stick with something when you’ve been public about your goals and they can check in on you. Second, if they are sharing in the reward with you, you will find a greater satisfaction in receiving that reward and greater pressure to stick with it knowing they are being let down if you don’t follow through.

Wrap Up

There are many more scenarios that may make a particular reward right for your situation and appeal to you as an individual.

Spend a few minutes coming up with a system that works for you and maybe even write it down. Making a written contract for your goals and rewards is a good way to cement the system and help you stick with it.

For more conversation on this topic and how to implement it in your life, tune into the Simple(ish) Fitness Podcast where we talk about just that and help you put systems in place to create a healthier lifestyle that will make you more productive, feel better, and live a happier life!


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