Techniques Used With Dolphins Can Improve Your Health

It’s the end of January—have you already given up on your New Year’s resolution? If your goal was health-related, that could mean missing out on some potentially life-changing benefits. Change is hard, but techniques used to successfully train dolphins might help you take another pass at that resolution. So, whether you want to learn how to perform synchronized backflips or just lose a few pounds, here are some tips.

Make It Fun

Dolphin trainers give animals a treat each time they do a desired behavior, in a technique known as positive reinforcement. Almost 100 years of scientific evidence show us that rewards work much better than punishment—yet, how many of us have berated ourselves for not making it to the gym? While this kind of self-punishment may work as a motivator in the short-term, there isn’t much evidence that it creates long-lasting change. So, instead of laying on the guilt, reward yourself for taking small steps towards your goal.

For example, if you have a goal that involves denying yourself something, such as quitting smoking, give yourself a reward every time you make a little progress. For example, put a dollar in a jar every time you smoke one less cigarette a day. Then, after a few weeks or so, buy something for yourself with the money—the reward can be anything (except more cigarettes) as long as it motivates you.

Set Yourself Up for Early Success

Few things are more discouraging than setting up a rewards program and then not earning a reward, which can happen if you set the bar too high. Let’s come back to the dolphins. If a trainer is trying to get a dolphin to jump 30 feet, how is that done?

The trainer first observes the dolphin’s baseline behavior. If the dolphin usually jumps 5 feet out of the water, the trainer rewards the dolphin with a fish. Once the dolphin learns that she gets treats for jumping 5 feet, the trainer eventually increases the jump distance by, for example, 20 percent (i.e., only rewarding the dolphin if it jumps 6 feet).

This process, called shaping, can be applied to changing your health-related behaviors. Before starting a behavior change plan, take a week to figure out your current level. Then, set your initial goals low enough that you succeed in getting a reward for at least the first three weeks of the program, working up to your goal in gradual increments.

For example, your goal may be to exercise an hour daily. However, right now, you figure that you do 10 minutes of physical activity twice a week, so that’s your baseline. So, for the second week of your program, reward yourself for exercising 20 percent longer, for 12 minutes twice a week. Once you get comfortable with that level, raise it another 20 percent to go up to 15 minutes twice a week, and so on.

Track Your Progress

Monitoring your progress is a great way to stay motivated. There are many digital tools to help you do this (including some developed by T2); check out the following (or check independent reviews like those on PCMag and Healthline to find other health-related apps and tracking devices):

  • Working on Weight Loss: Weight Watchers Mobile; Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker by MyFitnessPal; Calorie Counter PRO by MyNetDiary
  • Developing an Exercise Plan: FitBit; Charity Miles; DigiFit iCardio
  • Quitting Smoking: Stay Quit Coach; LIVESTRONG MyQuit Coach; Kwit
  • Getting a Better Night’s Sleep: CBT-i Coach; FitBit; Sleep as Android

So, if positive reinforcement and shaping can teach dolphins to do backflips, you can use these same techniques to improve your health. Just remember to make the process fun, reward yourself for early successes, and track your progress.

For information on how you can use behavioral techniques to set financial goals, check out this earlier T2 blog.