Boredom is a Four Letter Word

I’m working on the Enrichment section for my book Zookeeper’s Guide to Fitness. Enrichment was one of my favorite aspects of being a zookeeper. Keeping the animals mentally and physically active, increasing naturalistic behaviors, and engaging them in more dynamic ways was the epitome of zookeeping, personally.  Continue reading Boredom is a Four Letter Word

The Game is Afoot!

The past few weeks I have been engrossed in books with similar theme as A Zookeeper’s Guide to Fitness. I finished Level Up Your Life by Steve Kamb last week, and I’ve started on a new fitness/diet book called The Game On! Diet by Krista Vernoff and Az Ferguson. Vernoff is the executive producer (or is it Executive Producer, I’m asking for a friend) for Grey’s Anatomy, so she has a strong writing background, but I’m not digging her approach with the book. It was a little difficult to adjust to her style, although I understand her process. The book is about really having fun with your fitness, and taking things up a notch by not just turning our fitness into a game, but making it a team-oriented, competitive game as well. Continue reading The Game is Afoot!

Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth the ZooFit Way

I’ve been on the fence about how to present this seemingly delicate subject matter, and the most comfortable platform is obviously writing on my blog where only a small limited number of people will actually see it to dispute or argue with me. For some reason, the topic of sugar versus honey is very touchy. Continue reading Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth the ZooFit Way

The MacGyver Factor


I’ve often referred to zookeepers as the MacGyvers of the professional world.  I can’t think of any other profession where employees routinely think quick on their feet, respond immediately to issues, and utilize resources the way zookeepers do.  We are innovative, creative, and inventive, the Ravenclaws for the Care of Truly Magical Creatures.  This resourcefulness I learned in the animal care field has helped me more times than I can count, as a zookeeper, as a writer, as a fitness enthusiast, and as a conservationist. Continue reading The MacGyver Factor

Level Up My Life- How I Write!

I’ve become engrossed in a book very similar to my concept of “Zookeeper’s Guide to Fitness”.  I thought reading a book with the same ideas as my own would cave my motivation, as I feared someone beat me to the punch, but actually I feel quite the opposite.   I am motivated and stoked to share another program with just a few subtle differences, to reinforce the first one.  They are on the right track, and I love what they are doing with fitness and achieving goals.  I am bringing more to the table.
Continue reading Level Up My Life- How I Write!

Is Willpower Finite and Infinite? and How Conservation Helps

I’ve been reading a helluva lot of books on the subject of willpower.  Why?  Well, willpower has a lot to do with fitness and meeting our wellness goals.  Plus, I’ve been struggling recently to find the focus to write.  From his book “Willpower”, Roy Baumeister tells us that willpower is the ability to do what you need to do, regardless if you feel like doing it.   Continue reading Is Willpower Finite and Infinite? and How Conservation Helps

A New Me, a New You

I’m doing a fitness challenge called “New You” through South Island CrossFit.  It’s a 6-week challenge including 3 day/week workouts and meal planning booklet. I figure I as a coach, I should experience some of the components of a fitness program to discover some of the pros and cons, and see if there are ways I can make it easier and  more successful for other participants. Continue reading A New Me, a New You

Fitness Through Operant Conditioning

The program I’m developing revolves around the basic principles of Operant Conditioning. There are immediately some glaring questions: What is operant conditioning, why do animal trainers swear by it, and how on earth will operant conditioning help in a fitness program?tongue rub

I’m not trying to “dumb down” the definition of Operant Conditioning, but I do want to try to simplify it.  Basically, Operant Conditioning breaks down a behavior into small steps and progresses through those steps one at a time.  The first step is the simplest, easiest step to accomplish and the following steps add an element to the behavior until it is complete.  As the animal learns, they receive a specific consequence for the behavior. These consequences are a choice of Positive or Negative Reinforcement, or Positive and Negative Punishment.

To clarify, “positive” and “negative” don’t refer to “good” or “bad”. Positive means something is given to the recipient  as a consequence. Negative means something is taken away.  Reinforcement means the consequence will increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. Punishment means the consequence will decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.operant-conditioning-quadrants

So, when we put the terms together, we discover that positive reinforcement means something is given to increase the behavior. When we receive a paycheck, we are being positively reinforced for our work. On the opposite side of the reinforcement spectrum is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement means something is taken away to increase behavior (an aversive is removed as a reward). Think of the dinging going away when you buckle your seat belt.unicorn death

Positive punishment, on the other hand, is something given to the recipient to decrease the likelihood of repeating a certain behavior: yelling, hitting, or spraying water, anything used as an aversive- to STOP a behavior. And negative punishment is taking away something positive to decrease behavior , such as taking away the phone, toy, or driving privileges when teenager comes home late.the queen of punishment

There is nothing inherently “wrong” or “superior” with either of these methods. However, I am going to show why one of those methods is preferred by animal trainers.  What I mean is, if you yell at a child to get them away from a hot stove, you are not a bad person for using positive punishment. Nor are you a mean-spirited person for using negative punishment on your surly teenager. But when we are dealing with animals that cannot communicate with us the way other humans can, animal trainers have found it is easier to tell the animal what behaviors they WANT them to continue rather than ALL the behaviors they don’t want.  confused lion

For example if I wanted my dog to sit using just punishment, I would tug on the leash for him standing, and tell him no for trying to walk.  This could go on and on, the poor dog getting “no” and tugs on leash but he would still have no clue what I wanted from him.finger-pointing-punishing-dog

In contrast, if I want my dog to sit, I may pay no attention to him while he’s standing, but as soon he sits down he is showered with attention, rubs, and treats.  It is a lot easier for us to assume he knows EXACTLY what I want from him in this instance.training1

Let’s look at a human example:When I was a bratty teenager, I used to sneak out a lot. Most of the time I didn’t get caught.  But once or twice my parents found out and I would be punished, usually grounded or having privileges revoked.  The punishment was supposed to stop my sneaking out behavior.  It didn’t. Instead, it taught me to be sneakier so I decreased the chances of get caught. And therein lies the biggest issue with punishment as a consequence.  We never really are certain what we are actually teaching when we are solely focused on what shouldn’t be done.child sneaks out of house

Learning a bit about operant conditioning explains why zookeepers across the globe have adopted positive reinforcement as their focus when working with animals. But what does all this have to do with your fitness?

We may not realize how prominent operant conditioning relates to our everyday life, especially fitness.  Using punishment and reinforcement motivates us in different ways.  Punishment teaches us what not to do, while reinforcement encourages specific behavior to re-occur.  

Punishment is something we generally wish to avoid.  It’s an aversive stimuli that when presented will stop the immediate action that is occurring.  For this reason, some facilities utilize a penalty exercise (usually burpees, or some other complex combination exercise) for tardiness to classes.  The underlying reason for delegating burpees to late participants is actually quite benign.  If you have not had the pleasure of performing a burpee, let me explain the beauty of this incredible exercise- imagine falling onto the floor, purposefully, and then hopping right back up.  It is an incredible warm-up exercise, especially if you are in a hurry to jump-start your cardio and loosen up some of your muscles.  Because it’s such a great exercise that hits multiple targets at once, it is the perfect exercise to give someone when they are running late to class.  That’s not the problem with burpees.  It’s the mentality of burpees as a punishment that raises red flags.  A trainer uses punishment to teach a participant in class to not be late.  But the problem with punishment is that it may not teach the pupil what you intend it to teach.  burpees2

Remember the case of teaching a dog to sit through punishment?  It didn’t actually learn to sit.  It learned to not stand, not walk, not lie down, etc.  Because punishment teaches the subject what not to do.  So, if you know that you are going to “have” to do 20 burpees for being late and you want to avoid doing burpees because you view them as an aversive, what are you going to do next time you are running late to class?  Most people are likely to skip the class altogether to avoid the penalty.  Did the punishment teach us to show up to class on time?  

Even with the absolute best, most positive intentions, punishment can send the wrong signal.  I’ve seen signs in facilities that state “Use of the word ‘can’t’ will result in a 10 burpee penalty”.  I understand the sentiment.  Focus on the positive.  Keep coming and get stronger so you can do the exercise.  But once again, punishment doesn’t necessarily teach what was intended.  By penalizing the word “can’t”, trainers may in fact be teaching their members to not speak up and voice their struggles.  By punishing someone for saying “I can’t do a pull-up”, they may keep quiet, desperately wishing they could get better but not knowing how to tell their trainer.  In the end, the member may get frustrated that they still can’t do a pull-up because they never voiced their concerns, and that frustration could lead to them giving up on other goals as well.In addition to teaching lessons trainers didn’t intend to impose on their clients, I shy away from any exercise being designated a punishment.  Remember a punishment is an aversive that the subject will work hard to avoid.  Exercise is good for you!  We should appreciate and enjoy every workout, every movement, and every bead of sweat we produce because we are creating a better body, a better life for ourselves.  Instead of utilizing burpees as a punishment, I advocate getting excited over doing complex exercises that challenge us.  Appreciate them for what they will do for our bodies and even what they will do for our psyche when we complete the challenge.i love burpees
So punishment is out, then.  But why focus on Positive reinforcement and not positive and negative.  Reinforcement is reinforcement, right? Recall that negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive, which implies that there is an essence of punishment lingering in the background.  Beyond that, though, negative reinforcement simply doesn’t motivate and push us to exceed our goals the way positive reinforcement can.

A very popular trend in fitness centers is something referred to as the “Carrots and Sticks” approach. This program has participants put money down, almost as in a bet. Participants are encouraged to put a significant amount at stake, as they are informed the higher the stakes, the more motivated they will be to meet their goal. The participant then works towards their goal, with the amount of money on the line if they don’t meet their goal. At the end of the challenge or program, if the participant reaches their goal, they don’t lose their money. If they don’t reach their goal, then the trainer, fitness center, or sometimes a charity will receive the money that was at stake.carrot and stick donkeyThis method does indeed motivate many individuals. Losing money is a powerful motivator. Negative reinforcement does tend to work that way, at least temporarily. But it’s often short-term. Think of a gazelle on the African plain. They are negatively reinforced to run really fast when pursued by a predator, such as a lion or a cheetah. By running fast, they avoid a strong aversive. That’s a powerful motivator! But the gazelle will not continue to run at super-high speed for a long extended period of time. They are going to run fast only as long as it is necessary to avoid the predator.  download (2)

Participants in a “Carrots and Sticks” program or challenge are going to behave in a similar fashion to the gazelle. They will work just hard enough to reach their goal. And once they reach their goal, they can relax and stop. Negative reinforcement works great temporarily, but falls short on long-term lifestyle changes.

Negative reinforcement also doesn’t motivate as well as positive reinforcement.  Imagine participating in a “Carrots and Sticks” challenge and you worked very hard, but did not reach your goal in the allotted time. The program is about to start a fresh new challenge, with the same amount of money on the line. How likely are you to sign up for the challenge a second time? The average person would not likely risk losing their money a second time around. Even participants that meet their goal have a difficult time signing up for a second chance.

So, how does Positive Reinforcement measure up? With Positive reinforcement, punishment is never on the line. If a goal isn’t met, nothing happens. Instead, by focusing on the positive side of things- showing up to a class, hitting a personal record, finishing a workout, or even little victories such as drinking enough water and logging meals, there is a greater tendency to keep going, gaining motivation.give-yourself-rewards-for-achieving-goals

Imagine the “late to class” scenario where punishment was incorporated, but this time, imagine a Positive Reinforcement approach. When class starts, the trainer welcomes everyone warmly and begins the warm-up. If a student arrives late, after the warm-up is finished, the trainer acknowledges them by saying “I’m so glad you made it! You just missed a terrific warm-up, and we’re getting ready to start the circuit/skill/etc, so why don’t you do a quick warm-up of 15-20 burpees and then you can jump right in and join us!” I particularly like this approach because it doesn’t mention any negative behaviors. Instead, it focuses on all the positives. They came to class!  That’s AWESOME!  And the participant needs to warm up so suggesting burpees as the warm-up in at least a neutral way doesn’t brand the exercise as a penalty or punishment.  But what I really like is dangling over the tardy person’s head the Positive Reinforcement they can experience when they show up to class on time- the “terrific warm-up” (of course, it’s important for the trainer to follow up and make their warm-ups as fun as possible).

Positive reinforcement doesn’t just teach the actual desired behavior, either.  As opposed to negative reinforcement which has been shown to work only temporarily, positive reinforcement helps encourage and further motivate participants. Take the “Carrots and Sticks” challenge approach and apply positive reinforcement. Instead of “risking” money, you may have a chance at gaining something of value when you reach your goal. It doesn’t even have to be money, but the idea of “winning” something as a reward can be incredibly motivating. And in the event that you don’t reach your goal in the allotted time, nothing bad happens. In fact, there will not be any mention of it at all. Instead, the focus is always on when you do reach your goal.

Imagine a challenge with a celebration at the end, to recognize all the progress that was achieved. Even if you didn’t meet your actual goal, how likely would you be to sign up for another challenge with a focus on positive reinforcement?download

Now that we see how Operant Conditioning affects our motivation for fitness, take some time to reflect on how we currently treat ourselves in our fitness lifestyle.  Look at your eating habits, and how you react to your eating habits. Think about how you feel about working out.  Do you ever berate yourself for eating unhealthy? Do you create hostility around working out because you view it as a chore? Do you find yourself admonishing your actions because “you know better”? These methods of dealing with our routines are heavily focused on punishment.2fab40f2a9cd092780a6f84b6c99a45d

Operant Conditioning with a focus on Positive Reinforcement empowers you to really look at your goals, what steps you’ll take,and how you’ll deal with working towards your desired outcome. How you approach setbacks, as well as the triumphs, often determines whether or not we continue on with our journey.  By using Operant Conditioning with a focus on Positive Reinforcement, we are not only mentally prepared to tackle our fitness, but we will have a lot more fun doing it, and will create more lasting, sustainable healthy can do it