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The Power of Positive Reinforcement: How Encouragement Can Benefit Your Fitness Journey

31st May 2024

31st May 2024

By Shivraj Bassi

We've all been there - crushing it at the gym one week, only to find our motivation fading fast the next. Keeping up a consistent fitness routine is tough, and it's easy to get discouraged and want to throw in the towel. But what if I told you there was a simple, often overlooked psychological trick that can help you stay on track and keep making gains? It's called positive reinforcement, and it's more powerful than you might think. 

At its core, positive reinforcement is all about giving encouragement and rewards when you engage in desired behaviours. When applied to fitness, it means celebrating your successes and wins, no matter how small. Crushed your daily step goal? Nice work! Nailed that new deadlift PR? You're a beast! Recognizing and calling out those positive outcomes, whether to yourself or others, can provide a huge motivational boost.

The mental gains

There's actually some pretty solid science behind why positive reinforcement is so effective, especially when it comes to building habits and sticking to goals. Numerous studies have shown that positive reinforcement increases dopamine levels in the brain, creating feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation to keep doing whatever behaviour triggered that reward response.

This isn’t only true for newer trainees either; research suggests that positive reinforcement is equally as effective for seasoned athletes, even at the professional level. Take this coaching guidance article, titled ‘Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Coaching’, from the National Strength and Conditioning Association as an example. The article states ‘With reinforcement, athletes also build long-term memories of success, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and confidence. Successful experiences more likely colour the athlete’s view of competition as desirable and as an opportunity to perform.’ This shows that even athletes competing professionally at the highest levels, those who we would expect to have the greatest motivation, can benefit from positive reinforcement.

But the benefits go beyond just giving your brain a little chemical pick-me-up. Positive reinforcement has been linked to increased self-efficacy (the belief in your abilities to succeed), improved self-esteem and confidence, and even better emotional regulation and stress management. In other words, keeping it positive keeps you in the right headspace to power through challenges.

The physical payoffs

While the mental impacts are huge, positive reinforcement can also deliver some very tangible physical results for your fitness journey. Multiple research articles have found that individuals receiving positive reinforcement stuck to their exercise programs better and showed greater strength, endurance and cardiovascular improvements compared to controls.

The reason? Positive reinforcement increases something called "self-concordance" - the degree to which your goals fit your underlying values and interests. The more self-concordant you are, the more intrinsically motivated you become, leading to greater effort and persistence. You're much more likely to keep hitting the gym consistently when it aligns with your authentic, positively reinforced reasons for being there in the first place.

The social effects

Now that you know how beneficial a little encouragement can be for your own fitness journey, why not pay it forward? There are huge social rewards to dishing out positive reinforcement to others as well. Simple gestures like congratulating someone on hitting a new personal record, giving props on their workout fit, or cheering them on during that last brutal set can make a real difference in people's self-confidence and motivation levels.

Positive reinforcement builds connections and camaraderie within a gym community. Dishing it out regularly creates an environment of mutual encouragement and positive energy. Not only will this enhance everyone's experience, but it can inspire people to push themselves harder and be more open to giving advice and support to others.

So, the next time you're feeling sluggish or second-guessing your ability to stick to your fitness regimen, don't be shy about patting yourself on the back for your hard work and celebrating those wins. And while you're at it, give some kudos and high fives to others grinding alongside you. A little positive reinforcement can go a long way towards mental toughness, better physical results, and creating a better gym community for everyone.

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