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Are Your Messages Undermining Motivation?

Inspiring people to take action toward lasting well-being is our collective aim as wellness pros. But sometimes what we — or our participants — think is motivating actually ends up undermining motivation.

With careful attention to reading between the lines and avoiding unintended consequences, you can craft messages that truly motivate while cultivating a mindset that supports sustainable change. In words, images, and examples deliberately promote:

  • A healthy relationship with food, exercise, and other well-being behaviors

  • Positive body image

  • Attitudes of non-judgment, self-compassion, and empowerment.

Enhancing Your Message

These samples explain why the message is problematic…along with alternate positive or neutral language:

“It’s time to shape up for summer.”

How it undermines motivation: Promoting a seasonal urgency for fitness implies physical activity isn’t…and doesn’t need to be…part of everyday lifestyle.

Better: “Trying a new sport this summer? We’d love to hear about it; share a photo and brief description on the message board.”

“Guilt-free eating at today’s salad extravaganza!”

How it undermines motivation: Unless you’re stealing food, there’s nothing to feel guilty about. This message reinforces the detrimental habit of attaching moral judgments or emotionally charged labels to food choices.

Better: “Enjoy your choice of fresh local fruits and veggies at today’s salad bar!”

“Everyone needs a cheat day.”

How it undermines motivation: Eating what you want to eat isn’t cheating, it’s just eating. Again, this message supports thinking about food choices as good or bad and promotes an unhealthy relationship with food. A flexible approach to nutrition helps people make healthy eating a habit for life.

Better: “Savor your favorite foods; if they’re less nutritious, enjoy them in smaller portions and less often than more nutritious foods.”

“Just do it. No excuses!”

How it undermines motivation: This message offers yet another chance for people to feel ashamed and discouraged when they slip up or don’t achieve their goal on the first or 20th try. Truth is, lasting lifestyle change takes a lot more than commitment; it takes readiness plus the right information, skills, and level of support along with access to things like a variety of produce and opportunities to stay active.

Better: “What’s 1 thing you can do today to move toward your well-being goals?”

See the difference? These messages are designed to welcome and inspire all people — those with:

  • All abilities, fitness levels, and sizes

  • All kinds of prior positive and negative experiences with behavior change attempts

  • A wide range of self-efficacy levels and emotions relating to healthy behaviors.

The idea is to invite everyone to move in the right direction while encouraging a kinder, healthier way of thinking about behavior change.

Inspiring a Healthy Mindset

Using neutral or positive language to convey well-being messages will help your population leave behind a damaging mindset in favor of one that helps them feel good about changing behavior and launches them on a long-term path. Best of all, as people normalize this new, helpful way of thinking and talking about healthy living, they’ll exert a positive influence on others… including their families and coworkers.

Take a fresh look at your messages this week. Rewrite and polish as needed to boost motivation and support people in adopting the healthy mindset they need to win at wellness.

Your Turn

Got a favorite… or a pet peeve? What are the most motivating or demotivating wellness phrases, memes, and messages you’ve seen?

Beth Shepard Well-being consultant, educator, writer |ICHWC National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach |ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist |Lifestyle medicine advocate |25+ years in wellness |Jazz enthusiast.

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