Motivation vs Discipline

Motivation is a Great Thing to Have

Whether you get it from watching the training montage in any of the Rocky movies (NOT including Rocky V, aka the Rocky movie we do not speak of), listening to Eminem’s 8 Mile song, or from fitness models on Instagram, each of these can be what gets you off the couch and join a gym, and that is awesome! However, one of the most glaring weaknesses of motivation is that it is short lived and unsustainable for long periods.

For example, a six-week weight loss challenge may provide an individual with the motivation he needs to drop the 20 pounds to fit into his tuxedo forhis wedding, however, what becomes of this motivation when the 20 pounds are lost, the challenge is completed and the wedding has passed? Hopefully, in those six weeks, our mythical man has adapted to his new lifestyle and is capable of keeping the 20 pounds off, and possibly dropping a couple more pounds. However, the dirty little secret about weight loss challenges is that they often involve starvation diets that are difficult to sustain when the motivation from the challenge has passed. In several cases, it is highly common for individuals, regardless of their weight loss success, to return to their starting weight.

Lesson from The Biggest Loser

In fact, there was a study (1) that followed up with contestants from one of the seasons of The Biggest Loser. In case you were not familiar, The Biggest Loser was a weight loss competition TV show where, often, morbidly obese individuals were drilled with high intensity workouts under the supervision of a personal trainer and subjected to very lean diets (many ranging between 800-1200 kcal a day), and the object was to lose the most weight. In the study, they found that for the 14 participants (2 contestants opted to skip the study), their leptin (the hormone that inhibits hunger) and metabolism levels had dropped and never returned to normal, even though the study was performed six years after the season. Because their metabolisms slowed down, their bodies became less efficient at burning away calories, so most regained the weight.

The motivation behind The Biggest Loser and weight loss challenges is often cash or prizes, which is often enough because these challenges rarely last more than a couple months.

Motivation is a great thing to have when it is there, but what about the times when you do not feel motivated? In my six years as a fitness trainer, I have heard every excuse in the book from folks who have skipped their workouts all together or showed up to the gym sporadically, and “I’m just not motivated” ranks in the top 10.

As mentioned earlier, the issue with motivation is that it is short-lived. For some, it may last as short as a few hours and last a couple months, so it is paramount that you realize there is an end to motivation. So, how is it that some individuals are able to lose huge amounts of weight and keep it off?

One Word -- DISCIPLINE

Discipline is often misconstrued as meaning “no fun”. I like to think of discipline as a valuable characteristic that allows you to balance fun with work, and without throwing away the results that you have worked so hard to achieve.

While motivation is often what gets you to join a new gym after New Year’s, it is discipline that is what will have you coming back, consistently, for the years after you had joined that gym.

The reason why discipline is preached in the military is because that may be what can keep a troop alive during a surprise attack, by performing just as she had trained since reporting to boot camp.

Do Not Throw Away Your Shot

Discipline is a learned characteristic. Like many things in life, it may come easier for some and not so easy for others -- and, if you’re in the latter, that might actually be a good thing. Adopting a workout program that involves resistance training three times a week will require discipline for anyone that is interested in losing weight and keeping it off. One of my favorite lines in the musical Hamilton was when George Washington’ told Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton, “Winning was easy, governing is harder” because it is totally applicable to fitness!

Believe it or not, losing weight, although still impressive, is the easy part, and keeping it off is the hard part. I say this because keeping the weight off long after the initial goal has been achieved means having to continue getting out of bed and heading out to the gym when it is dark, cold and, frankly, you don’t even feel like working out. It is not uncommon for folks to allow their diets to begin to slip when a weight loss goal is met, and it could come in the form of adding sugar to one’s daily coffee or eating an extra snack during the day.

It is important to remember that basal metabolic rate (BMR) goes down as you lose weight. What this means is that a person that lost 20 lbs will have to eat less to maintain 180 lbs than when they weighed 200 lbs.

Finding Balance

Being a disciplined person does not mean that you are doomed to eat nothing but broccoli and boiled chicken; in fact, the occasional splurge might actually be good for you, AS LONG AS it is just an occasional splurge, instead of an everyday habit. Having a drink or two with your friends on Saturday will not damage your results, but having 5 or 6 drinks every other day will do a great deal of damage. Moderation is the key, and with discipline, you will have no problem keeping things in moderation.

We see it all the time, around New Year’s, when people adopt overly restrictive diets and kill themselves in the gym. More recently, I saw this when gyms reopened during this pandemic. While I love to see gym members looking and feeling motivated, I am hoping that they apply that motivation towards becoming more disciplined.

Stop Putting Fitness on a Pedestal

A big mistake that these folks make is putting their workouts on a pedestal. When you are motivated, you feel that you can do all things and nothing can stop you. However, when you are disciplined, you are continuing to show up at the gym and eat healthy, even on the days where you are feeling less than motivated, but you keep doing what you are doing.

Having a long-term goal may help you stay disciplined. For example, if your initial goal is to lose 20 lbs, and your long-term goal is to keep it off or build more lean muscle to acquire a more athletic physique, that may be what holds you accountable.

How to be More Disciplined

Earlier, I mentioned that becoming disciplined requires work and comes easier for some. I also said that if you’re one of those folks where it takes a bit more effort to become disciplined, that that’s actually a good thing.

For starters, it is best to start small -- think baby steps. For instance, walking 20 minutes a day-- it’s not a huge time commitment and it’s something that even the busiest people can do. Set an alarm that reminds you that it’s time to go on your walk, particularly at a time where it is least likely that you will have to be working to meet a tight deadline or some other activity of high importance (in many cases, early in the morning or late at night works best). When the alarm is going off, drop what you’re doing and get started on your walk-- NO EXCUSES.

After a couple days or weeks, when the motivation has worn off and the sound of the alarm has you seriously considering smashing your phone with a sledgehammer, this is where the real work happens. Plan ahead and be prepared to eliminate probable excuses, such as bad weather or having to make dinner for the kids. If it is raining, there is nothing wrong with walking around your home for 20 minutes -- sure, your kids and significant other might think you’re a crazy person, but at least you can now say that you’re a DISCIPLINED crazy person!

You Do You

Take a break from looking at the beautiful, healthy people on Instagram. They are almost always posting captions about how they love working out and eating healthy-- the hard truth is that every single person, no matter who, experiences days where they don’t feel like working out and would rather order pizza, instead of eating a salad. We are all humans and there is no shame in admitting periods where these thoughts pop into your head, so there is no need to feel guilt.

Being able to control these temptations and be consistent with the healthy habits that maximize fitness can be a reality for you with the help of motivation and discipline.

Motivation is the lighter fluid that gets the fire going, and discipline is the heaps of firewood that will keep that fire burning for a long time.

  1. Fothergill E, Guo J, Howard L, et al. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after "The Biggest Loser" competition. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016;24(8):1612-1619. doi:10.1002/oby.21538

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