It’s May, which means heavy sweaters have been shed and skin is starting to show. The arrival of summer comes second to only New Year’s as the calendar event that spurs us to eat healthier and be more active. But science shows us that all the “X days till summer!” reminders in the world won’t help you change your eating and exercise habits if you’re primarily focused on how you’ll look in your bathing suit.
If you want to form habits that stick around long after the return of cool weather, your motivation to eat better and get in shape needs to be based on something you deeply value — such as having enough strength, stamina and energy to hike your favorite trails with your family. Real change comes when you make changes based on who you are, not on how you think you will be perceived. Here’s why envisioning what you will look like once you’re “bathing suit ready” (a suggestion: Put on a bathing suit and you’re ready!) or when you make an entrance at your high school reunion isn’t the motivator you think it is.
Attempting to change your behavior and appearance to earn the approval of others taps into something researchers call “social identity threat.” Here’s how that works: If you see yourself as overweight or unfit, or believe others see you that way, it becomes part of your social identity. When you fear being rejected, devalued or judged because of negative stereotypes about this aspect of your identity, this feels threatening and leads to stress, anxiety, lower self-esteem and increased self-consciousness. Ironically, this can make you want to avoid going to the gym to avoid scrutiny. It may also contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors as you try to escape your emotional discomfort.
Though research suggests that visualizing yourself from an outside perspective can be motivating for straightforward goals — envisioning people seeing you vote makes it more likely you’ll actually vote, for example — they might hinder your pursuit of more complex health-related goals, including nutrition and exercise. That’s because our health isn’t entirely under our control, and seeing results requires consistent, ongoing effort and a deeper level of behavior change.
If you find yourself struggling, you’re more likely to abandon an appearance-related goal, because it becomes little more than a source of stress. Conversely, when you struggle with a goal central to who you are, you’re more likely to persist because you see the goal as challenging but essential. This is where values come in.
What does it mean to make choices that align with your values? A quick online search for “values list” will yield dozens, if not hundreds, of examples, many of which relate — directly or indirectly — to health, nutrition and fitness. Take independence. If you value being independent, you can take actions every day to preserve that independence. For example, eating well and exercising regularly can help keep you strong and prevent chronic disease.
Or, let’s say you actively seek novel and stimulating experiences, particularly exploring new places around the world. Your values would include adventure and curiosity. Eating well and staying physically active will help you align with those values because it’s easier to travel if you feel good, can walk for miles, and can easily hoist your luggage into overhead bins and up flights of stairs. One of the major reasons I enjoy long, brisk walks and weightlifting is because I view it as training for international travel.
Setting goals based on what you deeply value goes beyond achieving something — such as a desired weight or clothing size — so you can check off the “done” box. It’s about making decisions that align with who you are and how you want to be. You can live your values every day, even if your goal feels far away. And when your actions match your values, you can continue to behave that way, regardless of whether you reach your goal. Your values have no endpoint, so acting based on your values won’t either.
If you find that historically, your motivation for change tends to wax and wane, how do you navigate to a source of motivation that’s values-based? First, create a list of values and identify a few that are most important to you.
Then, set goals in the context of your chosen values, such as “I will lift weights X days per week so I stay strong as I age (independence) and can travel with ease (adventure).” Or, “I will carve out time to cook X days a week because I enjoy it (pleasure) and I feel better when I eat out less often (self-care).” Every time you are at a choice crossroads, ask yourself “If I choose X, is that moving me closer to what I value, or farther away?” That said, remember to retain some flexibility. If you turn values-based actions into rules — “I value my physical independence, so I must go to the gym every day no matter what” — you become rigid and actually lose touch with the value of independence.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.