Fitness Through Operant Conditioning

Maybe i should wait and think this post out a bit more, because I’m pretty sure I’m going to ramble, a LOT. But I’m excited and millions of thoughts are running wildly through my head and I really need to get them out. Again, I can organize the thoughts later more cohesively and post on my blog.

This has to do with a absolutely incredible conversation I had with Chris tonight while making dinner. He was talking about making his daily tasks into a game of sorts, like dailies on some RPGs that you have to accomplish, or my drinking app “Plant Nanny” where I have to log my water to make my plant grow. Simple but effective. Sorta.

We talked about how we need some sort of reinforcement for accomplishing the tasks, no matter how trivial they seemed until they were just part of your daily mindset routine. And this is how training works too. When you are starting a new behavior, you reinforce every motion towards completing the behavior, but eventually you stop reinforcing the intermittent steps and only reinforce the finished behavior.

Chris mentioned that a method that doesn’t work for him and actually kills motivation is to withhold his “reinforcement” until after he completed his dailies. That also made a ton of sense to me- a trainer never withholds food from the animal. We never tell them that they won’t get food until they complete XY&Z. We either move on to something else, ask for a different behavior or sometimes completely start over. Withholding creates hostility and resentment. “I hate this stupid list! I don’t even want to but I can’t play my game until I finish it”. That doesn’t work to inspire motivation.

I told him if he didn’t feel like completing the whole list, he could instead say something like “ok, I do NOT want to do this list. I really want to play my game. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll do one thing on the list and then play my game.” After a while he might add another item from the list and then another and so forth.

And I saw this amazing correlation to fitness and healthy habits. If someone told you right now that to get healthy you “had” to work out an hour every day and eat only these certain foods every day, or you won’t lose weight or reach your goals, you might come to dread the lifestyle and therefore it won’t stick. But instead, if you said to yourself “today I’m going to do 5 squats, 5 push-ups, and 5 sit-ups” you’d probably be motivated to do that. And then you could gradually increase your reps until soon you’re doing, I don’t know, 50 squats, push-ups and sit-ups. And then you could find other exercises to do. Until you have a routine and habit that you enjoy and know it won’t be overbearing or dreadful. (And yes, this method could even work with burpees)

And this led to yet another branch in the topic of training.

Now I can’t quite remember exactly how we got to this particular subject, but I told Chris that sometimes when we are training an animal a new behavior, they’ll have a little regression and fall back. I referred to The Kid who I’ve been training to “weave” between my legs. He’s solid when I’m standing still but sometimes gets a little confused or distracted when I’m asking for the behavior while I’m walking. So I briefly go back to standing still, reinforce that behavior and then move forward. Some trainers call this “going back to kindergarten”. And Chris loved this concept. He recognized that he does this all the time with his art. He started out by committing to 30 minutes a day. And he says he’ll work up with motivation and inspiration to working on his art for up to 2 hours. But then his motivation will falter and he goes back to thirty minutes for a little while and then he’s back working 3 hours at Gage Academy. And he’s okay with that. And he should be. Because he’s still staying committed and his skill and mastery is going up. He’s still improving each time.

Again, fitness is absolutely no different. Say you’ve been at your 50 reps count for over a week. And suddenly you wake up and working out, doing 50 reps is the absolute last thing you want to do. Pick a lower number, one that doesn’t seem daunting. “Ok, 50 is not happening today. But I can do 20.” And you do 20. But you DID it! That’s amazing. Because however many weeks or even months ago, you wouldn’t have even done 20! And you can either do 20 again the next day, go back up to 50, or try something in between. The point is you aren’t beating yourself up by not doing anything, you’re focused on what you ARE accomplishing!

There was even a little discussion about lowering criteria (if my trainer friends have made it this far into the post, I can only hope and pray they are having the same AH-HA epiphany moments I was having tonight). We do this with our animals ALL THE TIME! They had an exam the day before so we’re going to lower our expectations and not ask them to go in the crate today. Ease back into it. Fitness can be that way too.

“Oh, we just spent the entire day on a plane flying from the west coast to Germany. It’s midnight and we’re exhausted. But I didn’t do my glute exercises! Oh no!” Dude, lower your criteria. If you’re exhausted but you just HAVE to do your exercises, maybe just do the minimum or half a workout. And then Congratulate yourself because you did so much more than most folks would dream of!

We talked more and more about operant conditioning with fitness and found dozens of other correlations. I think this is such a great topic I want to include it in my Zookeepers Keeping Fit program!

Every little bit counts towards your goal, and everyone learns at different paces. Don’t judge yourself harshly. You deserve to treat yourself with respect and compassion. Your fitness is a journey. Enjoy the hell out of it!!!