Obesity: How to Motivate the Un-Motivated

It’s no secret that obesity has become a big problem in America and beyond.

Every year, governments release statistics showing us that we are getting fatter and fatter.

The nightly news alerts us to the perils of obesity.

And it may be even worse for our kids.

So, What Do We Do?

Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

We all know what we should do.

Eat less and move more.

But knowing that and doing it are two different things.

How do we motivate people to actually do the things they need to do to lose weight, keep it off and live a healthy life?

The Current Approach

At the present time, we are still treating this problem as if there is a lack of information.

We run public service ads in an attempt to counteract ‘junk food’ brainwashing with healthy lifestyle brainwashing.

Politicians say the right words.

Governments are forcing restaurants to include calorie counts on their menus.

They have even gone a step further.

In Los Angeles, city council has banned any new fast food restaurants from opening in a low income area of the city.

But, will this work?


Maybe not.

Here’s Why

Prochaska and DiClemente‘s Trans-Theoretical Model of Change (TTM) explains why people succeed or fail at changing their behavior.

By identifying the five stages that people move through in their attempt to correct a variety of problem behaviors, psychologists are able to identify why some people can make successful lifestyle changes while others get stuck in self-destructive behavior patterns.

The five stages of change are:

  1. Pre-Contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance
  • Pre-contemplation is the state of ‘no change’. You have no intention to change your behavior. In fact, at this stage, you may be completely unaware of any problem. According to Prochaska, Pre-contemplators are “often characterized as resistant or unmotivated and tend to avoid information, discussion, or thought with regard to the targeted health behavior”.
  • Contemplation is the stage in which you become aware that there is a problem, and you are seriously thinking about overcoming it, but have not yet made a commitment to take action. Contemplators are more aware of the benefits of changing, but remain keenly aware of the costs. As well, they are often seen as ambivalent to change or as procrastinators.”
  • Preparation is the stage in which you are either intending to take action in the next 30 days or resume the actions that you had already begun, but had recently abandoned. This is the most common stage of the yo-yo dieter and exerciser. Psychologists view this as a transition stage.
  • Action is the stage in which you have made changes to your behavior, experiences or environment in order to overcome their problems. The Action stage involves overt behavioral changes and requires considerable commitment of time and effort. After 6 months in the Action stage, you get to graduate to the Maintenance Stage.
  • Maintenance is the stage in which you work to prevent relapse and hold on to the gains you achieved in the Action stage. This stage is indefinite, unless you fall off the wagon, and have to start over at the Preparation stage. According to Prochaska, Maintainers “report the highest levels of self-efficacy and are less frequently tempted to relapse”.


If we assume that most overweight people are stuck between the Contemplation and Action stages of change, what we really needs are techniques that can help people move from thinking and obsessing about their weight to actually doing something about it.

Tips that have worked for you or for someone you know.

I have my own bag of tricks that I use with my clients, but I would love to hear what has worked for you

Please leave your stories of success in the comment section below.

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  1. A little over 2 years ago I looked at my family portrait and was disgusted. I was sitting on the floor with my kids and saw my gut hanging over my belt. This is what motivated me to do something. I have now lost over 50 pounds and am training to run a half marathon.

    Another motivator was reading other success stories in Men’s Health Magazine and online. Having someone else, like a spouse, sibling or friend, work out with you really boosts the motivation to keep at it. But they have to be committed too.

  2. Each individual has a different motivating factor. I set a plan, keep moving and stay consistent with my fitness routine.

    I agree…ACTION! 🙂

    Another fantastic post!

  3. Yup. We all know to eat less and move more but we all need motivation. I like to have a plan -for both eating and exercise. Depending on what triathlon/event I am training for, I tailor my workouts for that. I have found that when I have a race to train for, I am a lot more consistent with my workouts and eating habits because I don’t want to take last place!

  4. I learned about several other health behavior psychology theories in grad school… they are similar. Check out theory of planned behavior and theory of reasoned action. They basically say the likelihood a person will perform a behavior depends on their intention (did they pack a gym bag, sign up for yoga, make plans to exercise with a friend, grocery shop for healthy foods etc.), attitude toward behavior (do they like to eat healthy – do they like the way eating healthy and exercising makes them feel, would they rather surf the net or the tube?), perceived behavioral control (how much control they have over the behavior – I can’t work out because I have to walk the dog and cook dinner – it is what THEY perceive, not necessarily reality).

    We use stages of change in nutrition counseling all the time – even asking people to tell us where they think they are and then we work with them to help move them along.

    My own life experiences (with myself and family members with health behavior issues) tells me that you cannot motivate another person… or you can only do so much to support them and NOT sabotage them – which may be unintentional) But it gets to a point where the person has to want to change behaviors so bad that it becomes the priority and they have to be willing to work hard. Nothing comes easy… especially behavior change.

    I think the best thing families can do is support the person and re-set the “norms”. If you normally order take out food several times a week, decrease it to one time. What would it take. Who cooks, shops etc. So working with the person on helping them overcome barriers is key.


  5. For a long time I was stuck between the contemplation & action stages (usual lack of time, thus roller coster motivation, etc), then after moving to a place where I had a gym club at walking distance things have improved a lot. I am now on the maintenance stage as it is now easier for me to exercise on a regular basis: I don’t have to bother taking the car anymore and I feel happy going and coming back on foot; I’ve actually gained some time on my routines; working out on a more regular basis in addition to feeling happy to go for it (not a duty) made the results more visible, hence increasing the well being; my eating pattern has naturally improved; I feel more energetic and fitted with my clothes; I find it easier to burn the occasional little food excess and I’m more aware of what kind of “excess” I can allow myself; I have now reached the stage where I feel bad if I don’t have my regular work out shot.
    To sum up, I have now entered the virtuous circle of good habits, that keeps me going.

  6. OK I know that I need to loose weight. But WHY can healthy food not be cheap and easy. I mean why can’t there be chain stores where you can buy a $3 meal that is good, fast and good for you. The problem is access to cheap, easy to access healthy food. Fried food and other non healthy stuff is easy to get on every corner. They make it easy to get fat, why can’t a company make it easy to get healthy.

    The best thing I have found is a grocery store called “Fresh and Easy” They opened not far from my house. They make high quality meals that are ready to eat, just heat. They are healthy and such, but they are not really cheap, and you still gotta take it home to heat it up.

    Jason Dragon

  7. I am in the action stage, trying and hoping to transition to maintenance in another couple of months. I spent years in pre-contemplation and contemplation, while my weight slowly crept up and lots of clothes stopped fitting.
    What really motivates me right now is the desire to fit into a particular dress, by a particular date.
    I have a few factors going for me now, which I blogged about here: http://poupee97.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/the-dieting-saga/
    I also find that making a public announcement that I’m on a diet is a motivating factor to stick to it. That’s something I used to hate doing earlier, but then, none of my diets in the past eight or nine years have worked.

  8. Nice post. Trying to figure out how to motivate the un-motivated or not-as-motivated to change their lifestyle is something I think about daily. Your post coincides with a class I’m taking this semester: Health Communication. We talk about all those theories and models of change and I’m looking forward to it.

    I get the grief people have about healthy food being too expensive, taking too long to prepare, etc. But I don’t get how these same people (the ones I have contact with, not trying to generalize everyone) have no problem paying 10 bucks or more for a movie or something else. I can easily make a healthy meal on 10 bucks or less, and have leftovers for the next day. It’s not all about convenience; I wish we could get over the convenience factor and pay more attention to the health factor. Life is about living healthy and getting the most out of our bodies, not living conveniently.

    Rant over.

  9. Motivation definitely is the biggest obstacle for most people in the weight loss game. People need to want to make it happen for themselves. Today there is a dangerous attitude of “quick and easy” solutions whether it be for illness or losing weight. Those are only good for one thing, making money and not getting people lasting results. Then that just leaves people feeling worse in the end. People need to just focus on the day at hand, understand what it means to eat healthy (and be motivated to want to be healthy) and then just take a daily step every day somehow (hence why I started the whole daily rep challenge, to just get people going in a positive direction).

    If you can motivate someone, they will get it done…..but they have to want to do it, you can’t force someone to good health since it is their choice….and they need to realize they do have 100% control and a choice on where they go in life.

    Mike OD

  10. Great comments everybody,

    Even with this small sample, I think it’s obvious that there are a wide variety of techniques that can be used to help someone stick to a fitness routine – appearance, living up to the expectations of a role model, shared experience of a workout partner, writing down a plan, a time sensitive goal – race, incorporating health into your day to day, accountability, etc…

    And what works for one person may not work for another.

    Thanks for the feedback

  11. Jason,

    As the CEO of an investment company, I assume that you put in a LOT of hours at work.

    This may explain your frustration with the lack of availability of healthy prepared meals.

    I share your frustration.

    But there are options.

    Private chefs will prepare a weeks worth of healthy meals for a pretty competitive price. I have arranged for a discounted price based on the number of my clients that use the service.
    Directory – http://www.pchefnet.com/

    There are services that will deliver a days worth of healthy (http://www.inthezonedelivery.com/ is one) meals to your doorstep each morning.

    And the big chain restaurants could probably offer healthier meals at a decent price, but the odds are, no one would buy them.

    People aren’t getting fat eating steamed veg and grilled steaks.

  12. Excellent article, DR. I love the videos you’ve included (although truth be told I haven’t had time to watch all of them yet).

    For me, my biggest weight loss success was many years ago when I successfully dropped around 70 lbs or so. I kept it off for about 5 years. My biggest motivation was the company I kept – I was at the time still living at home (I was in my teens), and my parents were also on the same program. So we all ate the same way, and had similar personal goals. Being surrounded by an environment of weight loss made a huge difference in my motivation.

  13. Well, here’s my story, I was just pain scared straight. Mom and dad both have vascular dementia after a lifetime of bad eating, obesity, and diabetes. I did not want that for me, but we have BIG appetites in my family and I practically gave up when 10 I found out I couldn’t low carb and 2) did not lose weight on the most excercise I could fit in, including a twice a week karate class that just about killed me when I started out. I treat to eat “healthy” and my family thought I did too. But when the blood sugar levels started going up in my late 40’s, I bought Alli when it first became available. That, with the suprisingly MUCH lower fat diet, sans the high fat cheese that I though was not so bad health-wise, made all the difference. I was 212-216 lbs at 5″4″ (atill making me the “thinnest” person in the family tree, now that’s SAD.) I now seem to have plateuaed at 155-158, and have been size M instead of XL to XXL for well over a year. I enjoy the way I eat now which is lots of fish, fruits, veggies, and mostly good carbs, and will keep doing it, though I’d love to lose about 10 more lbs.

  14. As a trainer, I deal with this everyday. I work to develop a relationship with each person so I can understand what is really important to them. Everyone has different sources and methods for motivation. I make it a priority to take the time to understand why my clients sought me out and what it is that is going to keep pushing them along on this journey.

  15. we all know that obesity is a problem in U.S. but like this blog said.. no more how much it’s advertised that obesity can be solved people just can’t do the deed. there’s people out there who are trying to educate us in obesity and there are those we are egging it on. ugh

  16. Consider these stats:

    -When both parents are obese, their child has an 80% chance of being obese.
    -Even if only one parent is obese, the child still has a 50% chance of being obese.
    (Source: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.)

    What could be more motivating than realizing that your behavior directly affects the well being of your child?

    Here’s what we’re doing to help parents be better role models: The Coalition of Angry Kids (COAK.org)

  17. I struggled long and hard with motivation– I still do, but have reached healthy weight. What I realized is that when I knew what was good for me and bad for me but repeatedly chose bad, I needed therapy. In fact, therapy isn’t easy, and some things get harder before they get easier, but they did eventually get easier. I also learned awesome skills in therapy, like journaling, distress management, and meditation.

  18. Coming from Yorkshire in the UK we have the highest rates of male obesity in the country. Yorkshiremen used to be very active working the land or in industry and were praised for their large appetites and strong constitutions. Now a few generations on most Yorkshiremen are sat at desks, in offices, driving to work, and not taking the required minimum of 30 minutes or more of aerobic exercise a day – but still the tradition of large portions and finishing your plate persists, with Yorkshire women praising their men for what was a healthy appetite when active but now is a death knell.
    Somehow we need to see where we are to adjust our diet and exercise accordingly. We must find some motivation within ourselves, but industry has a role also.
    Buddy up, make some goals, work out what you should be eating and then visualise how it happens. Here is a video of a young guy I helped on his way to fitness http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvyBql7ES_g&feature=channel_video_title

  19. As a trainer I like to motivate my clients by finding their hot-button. I don’t care if it’s an ideal body or celebrity they like. If it’s for their marriage or significant other. Then I talk to them about turning that desire into an INTRINSIC motivator but will use that key name, phrase or person jokingly in sessions. Its good to have someone who motivates you, that you look forward to seeing and that you can mentally work with while physically taking on a transformation. I consider each of my clients to be a friend that I want to see succeed (with my tough love and expertise) -for more info or to find me email michelle.cameron@physiomed.ca or 647-927-0005

  20. As a trainer, I like to find out what my clients like so they don’t feel like its a chore but a lifestyle change. I actually workout with them so they are not doing it alone in the beginning. For some, they like to talk and before they know it they have walked about 3 miles. Most of my clients have a lot of things going on in their head which hinders them from successfully starting a routine and sticking with it. I like to use the 4 D’s; desire, decision, determination, and discipline. I don’t talk above their head; however I give it to them straight with tough love.

  21. This article came at a very important time for me as I am currently trying to motivate someone who I love. We started in the pre-contemplation stage and it took me 6 months to move them into the action stage. I was positive, I was negative, gave incentives, cried, set an example… Truth is individuals have to commit to action in their own heads but we as motivators can help them see the reward and frank necessity of a healthy lifestyle.

    A few things did it for me by coming together to create the perfect storm of enlightenment.

    1) I weighed 170lbs. Was 23yo, 5’5″ female and had been overweight and obese my entire life, at least as long as I can remember.

    2) A bright, confident, and fit woman started working with me and I couldn’t understand why she captured the attention of every single man around us, including one in particular who’s attention I desperately wanted. Needless to say I hated her.

    3) I was watching my parents fall deeper into a lifestyle of inactivity, boredom, and unhappiness. In addition I was watching my Dad get sicker and sicker with diabetes while being completely ignorant as to how his lifestyle was the cause.

    A single photograph of myself tagged by a friend on Facebook did it for me to realize how bad the extra 30+ lbs looked on me. Everyone has their one pic that they can’t forget. Mine happened to be of myself on a ropes course. I looked like soft, painful awkward smile, flab squeezing over and out of the harness, hands gripping the ropes like life depended on it.

    As for the new gal I started working with? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I decided to see what all of the fuss was about. Turns out when you are confident and find the humor and positive in life, your whole world becomes just that: full of confidence, positivity and fun. She became my number ones champion in weight loss, fitness buddy, and most sacredly, the person who gave me running. My first 5k at 34+ minutes and I was hooked.

    And lastly for my parents. I set an example, encourage, and educate but they are still stuck… I’m still working on that one but what was important to realize was that I didn’t have to share their same fate and I am determined not to.

    30+ lbs lost and still gone almost 3 years later, I am definitely in maintenance and “still progressing” mode as runners always are. Now I want to share the happiness and self worth with others I love by being a supporter and motivator.

    Thanks for the article.

  22. My own personal motivation came in 2006 when I realized that I couldn’t keep up with my kids with a simple run from one end of the garden to the other. I became involved in their soccer club and started to work on my fitness, and then had a “relapse” into poor health and sedentary life when I found myself dealing with several events in my life all at once. Motivation came again when I realized that my youngest son was obese, and that I needed to set a better example for him.

    For my youngest son, his eye opening moment was when I took some photos of him and showed him what his body looked like, where he was developing problems, and explaining why he had developed asthma. For my sister-in-law, a photo I took of her at Christmas has bothered her so much that she’s spent the last month working to lose a few inches and has used the photo on her facebook profile to remind her of why she is doing it.

    Learning to communicate with clients, finding out what their needs are and what they really want to achieve is so important because without understanding the client, it’s nearly impossible to find an effective means to motivate the client when they have no motivation. When they discover their reason why, then it becomes the trainer’s job to simply remind them of the “why” when the setbacks occur, and to know how to communicate that both sensitively, and assertively.

    The motivation of clients must come from within, otherwise it won’t have any value for the clients and you risk alienating them and destroying the hard work you would have put in developing a relationship with them. Sometimes though, you need to learn to pick your battles, and let the occasional poor motivation day slide so that you can use it as a motivational object lesson another day.

  23. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that there are still people out there who don’t know what to do to control their weight; at least most people know this at the rudimentary level. However, the main culprit here is the food; but we cannot do without food and we eat what is usually available. And this is where the environment comes into focus. The environment is saddled with folks who want to make money riding piggyback on the public who consume their foods! And these food producers are left uncontrolled! In such a situation, most members of the public would have no choice but to patronize these food producers, resulting in the consumption of junk foods we talk about, with the ugly consequences of overweight! The society really has to get real!

  24. Good Morning! (for me anyway)
    I usually find the “wavelength” of your forays to be logical, hence I continue reading them. Today I gotta disagree with a starting premise of the blog: Eat less and Exercize more is nothing but a pat little false half-truth that does more harm than good.
    Eat RIGHT is a better little ditty if you have to use a ditty. Eat nutritious foods, whole foods, things without a shelf-life, however you choose the describe the ditty. Yes it is true that food quantity is often an issue, but I can tell you from experience that figuring out food quality FOR ME has been more important than quantity or calories or whatever. As a non-medicated but pre-diabetic person the key was managing sugars and carbs in my nutritional plan.
    Move more. Exercize more. I’m so sick of hearing that bald little guilt trip I could scream. Good health involves movement of the body in ways that nature intended. Yes — hugely important. Can’t argue with it. But the point of this post was motivating the un-motivated ……..
    Problem – this assumes the un-fit are unmotivated. As a formerly morbidly obese person I can tell you that motivation and success can only come together if the plan is logical. And what is logical when you’re north of 350 pounds is NOT jogging or zumba or even sometimes just plain walking.
    Ranting this even further — 75% 80% pick a number — the majority of sucess in healthy body comes from nutrition. Exercize is the topper that gets your heart & lungs & everything else working better.
    Eat right. Just move.
    My sticking point wasn’t contemplation. My sticking point wasn’t understanding kinds of nor need for exercize. I wasn’t stuck between contemplation and action. I was stuck because the actions of choice weren’t appropriate and I hadn’t figured out why. Which is the launch point for my opinion is that there isn’t a lack of opportunity, rather there is a lack of ANALYSIS and UNDERSTANDING which is a highly personal exploration. There’s too many quick fix plans to try and too few people who are actually teaching the tools to figure it out. I don’t really know how many people are looking for that understanding but I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t pretend to be an expert ((at least not yet!!)). However, I think that melting 134 pounds off my arse gives me license to disagree. I’m starting to think I should write a book instead of a blog ….
    Thanks for the chance to think in print. Happy St. Patricks. I’m going to walk my dog around the block now. BECAUSE I CAN!!!!!!!

  25. From way back in 2008! I’m going to assume you’ve broadened your thinking since then! I can only speak for people who deal with serious weight problems—it is a myth born of bias that very overweight people are “unmotivated,” that they “let themselves go,” that they are filled with self-loathing, that they don’t care about themselves. Just the opposite. A very large person lives with a constant anxiety, a nagging sense of a need to “do something” that leads to endless cycles of being “on” or “off” a diet at any given time. The struggle with weight is exhausting and can lead to what I call “cycling out” when people go through a period when struggling to lose weight becomes more difficult to handle than being fat and they drift away from any specific weight loss effort. I went through periods of cycling out myself. Since the publication of my book, I’ve heard from many, many people who experienced this and were grateful someone finally described it. The belief that very overweight people don’t care and are unmotivated contributes to the shame that our culture projects upon them. I certainly experienced it myself.

  26. Hey Dagny…when I look back at a lot of my old posts, I am torn between leaving them as is…and editing them to catch up with the 2013 me. I don’t think I ever felt that overweight people are any more lazy or un-motivated than naturally skinny people. That doesn’t mean that that vibe didn’t come through in some of my posts. Heck…if I am in a cranky mood when I write, it shines through in my writing.

    As a guy would would be over 300lbs if I didn’t eat healthy and exercise like a beast, I understand that none of us are playing on a level playing field.

    BTW, I really appreciate your comments..we need to write that article together soon

  27. Going back through these older posts as a blogger I have to admire how prolific you’ve been for so long!!!

    I’ve written you, do you get my emails??? Maybe they go to your spam folder?

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