Question: How Can I Motivate My Wife to Walk?
D. writes: "I would like to get my wife into walking. She is about 50 to 75 pounds overweight and is very discouraged. I just can't seem to motivate her and I really don't have the energy to be her cheerleader and/or coach. She wants to get going in a walking program but just can't seem to get started. Today I'm going out to buy her a good pedometer because I just read people who use them are more motivated when they begin a walking program. Do you have any ideas on motivating her?"
Pedometer research studies have shown that they are great motivators, but they may be just one step towards getting your wife into a more active lifestyle. Spouses can encounter a real minefield when trying to support each other to lose weight and get fit.
I asked Dr. Dar Parrow, a sport psychology consultant with Northwest Mental Edge Sport Performance in Portland, Oregon, for insights on motivating your spouse. "Motivation is different for everyone. Try to understand your spouse's motivation based on her terms, not yours," she said, and offered further insight.
Reward Might Be Seen as Punishment: Giving a gift that can in any way suggest the loved one needs to lose weight is tricky. Dr. Parrow says, "When using positive reinforcements, two people may respond differently to the same reinforcement. While it is true that people who use pedometers tend to be more motivated, it could be that your wife could interpret getting a pedometer as a punishment for not walking enough."
What Are Her Values? Your wife may not be ready to admit she has a weight problem or inactivity problem that she is ready to address. Dr. Parrow says, "The first thing to do is to understand your wife's value system: does she enjoy walking or other forms of exercise? What is your wife's self image of herself? Does she see herself as overweight or out of shape?"
Positive Reinforcement: Dr. Parrow says, "Make sure your reinforcement of her efforts at exercise are positive ones. There are all sorts of advice for amount of exercise time, technique, speed, and intensity. But the bottom line may be that your wife simply needs to concentrate on moving forward and be complimented for doing so."
The Cookie Approach: When you are asked for advice, it is important to put it into a tasty package. Say Dr. Parrow, "If she does get started walking (or pursuing some other form of exercise) and could use some advice on the technical details, try the 'cookie' approach: Compliment her for her effort, add the advice in the middle, and finish off with another compliment or more words of positive encouragement."
Make it Fun: Those beginning an exercise program will only continue with it if they find it enjoyable. The key is keeping it enjoyable and not making it into a grind. Dr. Parrow says, "Finally, remember that intrinsic (internal) rewards are far more effective than extrinsic (external) ones. You cannot directly provide the intrinsic rewards but you can influence the environment to promote effort and improvement by trying to make walking a fun, enjoyable activity as opposed to using competition, outcomes, and social comparison as motivators."
Dr. Dar Parrow is a sport psychology consultant and walking club president in Portland, Oregon.