I see Mark, my brother-in-law, once a year. He’s a great guy, and the visits are always fun. Except for one part: The inevitable workout question.
In general, I love to share fitness advice. It is, after all, what I write about for a living. The problem is, Mark doesn’t actually work out, and hasn’t for most of the time I’ve been married to his sister.
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Some years, it feels like giving travel tips to someone who never leaves home. This year, though, the question had a different slant. Instead of asking technical questions about the best way to build his arms or lose weight or utilize the Total Gym he keeps in his garage, he wanted to know how to get motivated to work out.
I was stumped.
I’ve explored motivation a few times over the years, most recently in ‘How To Make Your Unhealthy Dad Give a Crap,’ about how to help a loved one get up and moving. It explained why nagging someone never works. In fact, it often has the opposite effect, provoking a response psychologists call “behavioral reactance”—the adult version of “I don’t have to and you can’t make me.”
But this was beyond nagging. Mark was asking me, in effect, to help him rewire his brain and override his natural aversion to exercise, a task I figured would be impossible to pull off. Then I talked to someone who convinced me otherwise.
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Digging for Pain
Alwyn Cosgrove and I have known each other since 1999, and written six books together. In all that time, I can’t remember asking him about motivation. I just assumed that the paying customers at Results Fitness, the gym he owns with his wife, were ready to train. Why else would they pay Alwyn’s coaches to train them?
But it’s not quite that simple.
“People won’t always tell you why they want to get in shape,” Cosgrove says. “Sometimes they don’t even know themselves. We have to find their real ‘why.’”
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It goes something like this: A prospective client comes in, checks out the gym, and expresses enough interest to sit down with a trainer. The trainer asks the client why he wants to work out there. The answer will fall into a narrow range, some variation on “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get in shape.”
What matters, Cosgrove says, is why that’s important to them. If they’ve tried multiple times to get in shape—and most of them have—why is this time different? And what happens when they lose the fat? What changes?
“It’s like the movie Inception,” Cosgrove says. “You need to go two or three layers deep.”
If those questions don’t get to the client’s motivation, this one usually does: “What happens if it doesn’t work? What’s the consequence of not getting into shape?
“He might say he thinks his wife is cheating on him,” Cosgrove says—something he hasn’t even admitted to himself until that moment. “That’s what’ll get him doing hard circuits at 6 in the morning when he’d rather be in bed.”
It made perfect sense in theory. But would it work with Mark?
Tough questions, honest answers
I first met Mark in 1993, shortly after his sister and I started dating. He was a lean and handsome 28-year-old who had a good job in the booming cellphone industry. Like countless others in Southern California, he also retained some show-biz aspirations.
“I worked out regularly up until my mid 30s,” he says. “But I never enjoyed working out. It was always a thing I had to do, rather than a thing I wanted to do.”
He tells me he “basically went cold turkey” on exercise when he simultaneously left the job and lost access to the company’s gym. That shouldn’t have been a problem in L.A., where you rarely have to drive more than a mile or two to find an adequate and affordable place to work out. But Mark is the fitness equivalent of a picky eater. He likes to do circuit workouts, but franchise gyms are too crowded to allow him to go from machine to machine with minimal rest. And the atmosphere, which he describes as a “meat market” and “fashion show,” is intolerable.
He thought the Total Gym he found on Craigslist a decade ago was the answer, but he was quickly frustrated by the limited exercise options. So he bought an updated version a few years later, and for a while, he says, he got pretty good results, packing muscle onto his arms, chest, and shoulders.
Alas, the infomercial device didn’t help him whittle down his swollen midsection. That bulge—“a classic beer belly,” he says—is the result of 15 years of steady weight gain. He now carries 235 pounds on what used to be a classically proportioned 5-foot-11 frame.
Which brings us back to the original problem: How can he find the motivation to do something he fundamentally dislikes but also believes is crucially important? It was time to test Cosgrove’s technique and see if we could find an answer.
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Question #1: Why does he want to work out?
This one’s almost too easy: “My goal is to get back into shape,” Mark says. “And over time remove this bulbous thing in front of me. I’m looking for something surgical.”
Question #2: Why is that important?
This answer is a bit more complex.
“It’s a health issue,” he says. “I’m starting to get some stuff that’s weight-related. I have frequent ankle strains and bouts of plantar fasciitis. I’m going into middle age, and these problems will only get worse unless I do something about it.”
I notice his choice of words—“going into middle age.” Anywhere else in the U.S., you probably wouldn’t think of yourself as less than middle-aged in your sixth decade of life. But L.A. is different. If you’re not in denial about your age, you aren’t really trying.
“I’m 52 now, but I answer to 47,” Mark explains. “I got 41 the other day. If I get in better shape, I think I’d be mistaken for 41 more often.”
Now, I think, we’re getting somewhere.
When you start working out, follow these tips to avoid accidental weight gain:
Question #3: Why now?
Mark works as a high-end tour guide, taking wealthy out-of-towners around to see the homes of the stars—or, more often than not, the imposing gates outside the stars’ homes—while providing a steady stream of witty commentary. The job is volatile, to put it mildly. It’s not just subject to seasonal and economic fluctuations, as you’d expect, but also to the current political climate, with fewer tourists coming to the U.S. with money to spend.
Then there’s the unpredictable nature of driving in L.A. He conducts his tours in a luxury car, owned by his employer. The tiniest fender bender could lead to astronomical damage claims. In the worst-case scenario, he’d be classified as a high-risk driver, which means he wouldn’t just lose his job, he’d be virtually unemployable in his field.
He’s haunted by thoughts of that future job search.
“Of course I want to look good for an interview,” he says. “I have no problems with confidence, or the ability to learn, or anything like that. But the impression on somebody when I walk into an office, I want it to be better than it would be now.”
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Question #4: What happens if you don’t get into shape?
Something I haven’t yet told you about my brother in law:
He’s never married, but for the past 24 years, he’s been a surrogate father to the daughter of his former roommate. Mark and the roommate were never involved romantically (she was already pregnant when they met), but they remained close friends and provided a stable household for her daughter. But now, with the daughter out of college and living with her boyfriend, “I’m not sure I want to be finished with parenting yet.”
He wants to explore foster parenting, and perhaps even an adoption down the road. But he knows time isn’t on his side.
“Being in good shape would make a more favorable impression on adoption and foster agencies,” he says. “And the energy from being fit would help me keep up with him or her or them.”
He then shifts to his personal life, something I never ask about.
“Through the first half of my time as a parent, I dated a lot and got serious twice,” he says. “I don’t date much now because I don’t really feel I have a lot to offer, is what it comes down to. I don’t feel like I’m there.”
This feels like we’re pretty close, but when I run these answers past Cosgrove, he tells me to ask one more question:
Question #5: What happens when you do get back in shape? How is your life different?
To my surprise, Mark circles back to the age issue.
He talks about the confidence he’ll have by not just looking younger, but also feeling younger. It’s the linchpin connecting everything we’ve discussed—employment, dating, and even the chance to start a new family.
“I enjoy being mistaken for younger than my actual years, in part, because it can also make me appear smarter,” he says. “Fair or not, attractive people, especially in L.A., are better perceived and have a leg up on others with similar qualifications.”
Now I think we’ve arrived at motivational ground zero. The open question is, is it enough? I guess I’ll know when we see each other a year from now.
Lou Schuler is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor to Men’s Health. His latest book is Strong: Nine Workout Programs for Women to Burn Fat, Boost Metabolism, and Build Strength for Life, with coauthor Alwyn Cosgrove.
This article first published in Men’s Health.