A mouse chasing a block of cheese in a maze.

People come to me because they have a fitness goal in mind.

They want to maintain strength during pregnancy. Regain strength postpartum. They want to be able to pick up their two-year old with ease. Or maybe they want to learn to swing a kettlebell while managing prolapse symptoms.

All of these goals are driven by a desire to change something about one’s current situation.

They’re feeling less energetic and they desire more energy. Their strength is waning and they want to feel strong again. They can’t easily lift their big kid but they’d like to be able to carry them with confidence. They’re favorite activities don’t feel comfortable or accessible any more and they want to do the things they used to do.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes desire as “the difference between where you are now and where you want to be.”

Goals are rooted in desire. And they drive behavior change.

But are all goals and all desires created equally? Is all motivation equally motivating?

Consider the question another way:

What’s a more powerful force behind behavior change: running towards a prize or running away from a threat?

What Science Says About Different Types Of Motivation (The Owl And The Cheese)

Here’s a story about a fun bit of research (1):

Scientists gave some research participants a set of mazes. They instructed the participants to get a cartoon mouse from one end of each maze to the other.

There were two versions of the mazes. In one set of mazes, an owl loomed over the maze hunting the mouse. In the second set, the mouse was chasing cheese waiting at the finish line.

The participants chasing the cheese finished the maze faster and completed more mazes.

The participants fleeing the imaginary owl demonstrated a much weaker performance.

Amazing! Even in the face of a subtle threat like a made-up owl at the top of a maze, our performance tanks under the pressure.

Here’s the rub:

We perform better when we have a positive goal compared to when we’re fleeing a negative state.

“Working Towards” Rather Than “Running From”

It’s the difference between focusing on an outcome rather than running to anywhere-but-here.

“Working towards” rather than “running from”.

When you’re running from a thing, there’s no guarantee that the place you end up is going to be better than where you started.

When you’re focused on a positive outcome, you can focus your efforts and energy on that discrete goal.

Urgency vs. Self-Compassion

In my experience, people approach “running from” goals with urgency and “working towards” goals with compassion.

When driven by urgency, you might not take the time to put together a sound plan.

When you’re driven by compassion, you are more likely to but together a strategic plan of action.

“Working towards” and “running from” are two very different ways for approaching a goal. And approach matters.

We thrive when we have a positive goal to work towards.

We need tasty cheese at the end of our maze.

What’s Your “Why”?

So what about YOU?

What’s your “cheese”? What’s the goal you’re working towards right now?

Are you trying to change your body because you hate the way it looks? Or are you working to feel stronger and more powerful in a body you love?

Are you looking to shrink? Or are you looking to take up more space (literally and metaphorically)?

Are you giving yourself the gift of exercise or are you punishing yourself for what you ate at your last meal?

Are you looking to improve your health for yourself and your growing baby? Or are you trying to minimize the visible toll the pregnancy is taking on your body?

Take a moment to evaluate your motivations for being here. For seeking out information on exercise. For following through on an exercise program

The “cheese” is a celebration of your remarkable body. The “owl” is fear of or disdain for the changes it is undergoing.

I encourage you to thinking through your “why” without judgement. And if you find you’re running from an owl, get curious about that thing your trying to avoid, change or minimize.

If you’re open to it, try reframing your “why”. Can you find a way to do the same work in a way that celebrates your body?

Sometimes a mindset shift can make all the difference.

If this hits home, I’d love to hear what you’ve come up with. Please comment below and tell me what you’re working towards.

P.S.: I first encountered the owl and the cheese study in the book, Burnout: Secrets to Unlocking The Stress Cycle By Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. If you want solid tools for managing stress and increasing the joy in your life, I highly recommend!

Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to follow the link and make a purchase. Please understand that I recommend these products because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to purchase one. The commission is just a perk of sharing good information with people who appreciate it and it does help support this blog (thanks in advance!). Please do not spend any money on any of these items unless you feel they will enrich your home workout experience.

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My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.

Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I also offer personal training services and consultations to folks locally (Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland) and online.

Certified Prenatal & Postnatal Coach, Pregnancy & Postpartum Athleticism Coach and Postnatal Fitnesses Specialist.

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