Can elephants show us how be motivated all the time to stick to our diets and training plans? I think they can!

First a little story. On my visit to India last year I visited the Amber Fort in Jaipur. One of the highlights of the trip was the elephant ride which takes you up this long steep hill to the main entrance of the fort. The elephants are very beautiful with their trunks and foreheads painted in traditional colors and patterns.

I was amazed at the size and strength of these beautiful creatures and how easily they responded to their turbaned handlers.

But being that this was my first time riding an elephant I wondered what would happen if they decided to run downhill instead of walk uphill or hit the small turbaned guy with their trunk!

Comparing the size of us riders and handlers to that of the elephant I knew  if the elephant ran amok or decided to  lie down then I would either become elephant squash or a tourist taking a sun bath whilst sitting on top of an elephant in the middle of a hill path of a famous fort!

Now what does an elephant has to do with staying motivated to eat healthy or be fit?

Actually a lot! Maybe when we see this  magnificent creature we get inspired to be just as strong as him and we start moving huge rocks and trees to get stronger.

This may be a great incentive but the elephant I am referring to is not one that we need to go to India to see. We don’t even need to go to the local zoo see it. This elephant is much closer than you think. It’s inside your head. It’s your very own BRAIN!


According to neuroscience the brain is divided into:

  1.  pre-frontal cortex
  2. limbic brain.

Each has distinct functions, size and shape. The pre-frontal cortex helps with rational decision making, willpower, conscious planning, making choices and achieving our goals.

The limbic system among other things is the seat of our passions, emotions and motivation.

How does this relate to riding an elephant in Jaipur? For the moment let us say that the limbic system can be like
ned to the Jaipur elephant and the pre-frontal cortex can be likened to its turbaned riders giving the formula:

Brain = Prefrontal Cortex + Limbic system = Rider + Elephant

Your Brain!


I first read about the analogy of the brain being compared to a rider perched on top of an elephant in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.

To summarize the idea , in order to stick to our diet and fitness efforts  both the rider and elephant needs to be moving in the same direction. There are different strategies for ensuring that they work together as a team.

Let’s see how we can apply this to staying motivated to achieve our health and fitness goals.

So say that you have decided to embark upon a yoga program or take up running 3 times a week.To see the maximum results from your training you have also gotten a professional nutritional plan done up. This plans outlines number of meals, servings of fruits and vegetables etc.

So with exercise   and nutrition plan in hand you are ready and gunning to march forth sculpting some sexiness. Both the fitness and nutrition plans is rider territory as he is responsible for planning and deciding on specific actions on how to achieve the desired goals.

Mr. Rider and Mr. Willpower are on full throttle ready to crush it! But then Mr. Elephant decides that he would prefer start next week instead of today and in the meanwhile he would like to have some donuts and pizza.

Now a pulling and tugging between rider and elephant begins!

This would most likely be the case because the very nature of the elephant is to procrastinate and seek immediate gratification.  The rider really wants to go to yoga practice and skip the pizza but the elephant thinks ‘oh I can eat the pizza and from tomorrow I would diet and go to do yoga’.

The battle between rider and elephant continues. Imagine this scene under the hot Jaipur sun of this little turbaned guy trying to prod the huge elephant to quit lying down and to start moving.

If that elephant doesn’t want to move then the rider wouldn’t have much of a chance of making him do otherwise because of the massive strength and size difference.

Elephant not budging!

A fight here would be useless that’s why it’s important to have the elephant on your side as you embark on your fitness and health journey or he can doom your health and fitness plans.

There are various hacks and techniques we can use to get the elephant on the rider’s side but before we go on to any of these we need to get this one down pact first:


“He who has a ‘why’ can endure any how” –Frederick Nietzsche.

‘Why’ is the reason you do something. Without a strong enough reason then it’s likely you wouldn’t be able to stay motivated to follow through with your practice and nutrition.

Your ‘why’ can be anything from wanting to build the best body possible, getting girls or having more energy to play football with your kids.

Once you have the right ‘why’ it fires you up as it provides the strength of the elephant necessary to stay motivated.

The stronger the ‘why’ the more likely you are to succeed.  That’s why people who are a hundred pounds overweight has more motivation to stick to their fitness journey than someone who is just a few pounds overweight. It’s because their ‘why’ is stronger and they have a greater reason to become fit.

Maybe they want to be a role model for their kids or maybe their doctor told them that they are on the verge of developing diabetes.

A good friend of mine got his ‘why’ when his daughter’s classmates asked her if her dad is Shrek. She came home one evening crying telling him that the other kids were calling her  Donkey.  At that point he felt a visceral pang of embarrassment and made up his mind that he was going to become the fit dad his kid could be proud of.

I got my ‘why’ when I went to buy a traditional shirt to attend a wedding and the store owner told me that they would have to customize one  as there were no sizes to fit me. At that point I felt the emotion of disgust.

In those two examples the emotions felt was disgust as in my case, and in my friend’s case it was embarrassment.

Emotions are powerful things. Management guru John Kotter explains that we change when we see and feel something. When we feel we are engaging the ever huge powerful elephant.

Your ‘why’ doesn’t have to be anything esoteric, grand or save the world type. You decide it yourself and you can change it at any point.

When I first started out my fitness journey my ‘why’ was that I wanted to be ripped with popping veins so both men and women would admire me. After all it’s only human to want to look more attractive.

Now my ‘why’ has changed to wanting to show others that no matter where you are starting from that anyone can be fit and healthier.

A ‘why’ beyond self interest is a very powerful source of motivation according to the authors of The Power of Full Engagement. They site the cases of firemen and armed forces who risks their lives for others.

So as you progress try to find a ‘why’ beyond self-interest. If you base it just on looking good or achieving a number on the scale it becomes difficult to sustain long term. Dig deeper and articulate what being healthier would bring to the life of the people around you like your kids and family.

A meaningful ‘why’ is one of the most powerful tools you can use to stay motivated on your path to being healthier. It keeps you on track when temptation arises to stay in on a rainy day instead of hitting the gym or going for your yoga practice. It makes preparing healthier meals that much easier.

Remember the why’ gets to the elephant. It’s elephant territory! It resides in the elephant parts of our brains.  And remember the elephant is big and strong.  Get him on your side and watch how staying motivated just becomes easier.

Go get your ‘why’. That’s step one to becoming and staying motivated!