We all want to be fit and thin. But those external rewards are often not enough to get us to exercise and eat right.
Working out on a regular basis is especially tough. As we’ve discussed before, those who do it actually enjoy it — they are intrinsically motivated to exercise beyond the external benefits.
The key for the rest of us is to make it intrinsically rewarding until it becomes a habit that feels wrong to break. “If exercise is not habit, then it’s effortful and takes resources from other things you might also want to be doing. That’s why people give it up,” says Dr. Alison Phillips, a professor at Iowa State University.
How do we “trick” ourselves into enjoying this particular form of hard work?
There is a research-backed approach that actually works. I happened across two articles this week that seemed to be talking about the same thing, but upon closer reading, they came at the issue from different perspectives, and even cited different research studies to essentially come to the same conclusion (which is encouraging).
Let me synthesize this for you into the three essential components:
1. Start Fast and Slow: The reason exercise can be a tough habit to form is because we experience unpleasantness long before we get any of the external rewards. Research shows that we can develop a more positive association with exercise if we put the intensity of our effort up front and then taper off toward the end. So, don’t start slow and end with a sprint. On the other hand, the idea of incremental change applies here … your overall starting point should be slow and somewhat easy for your fitness level, while increasing in intensity gradually and consistently over time.
2. Identify and Remember: You don’t want to push yourself to max at the end of your workout, because that’s what you’ll remember when trying to get yourself to show up for the next session. Instead, put yourself in the position to experience the things that make you feel good about the workout. Fortunately, unless we overdo it, most everyone experiences a positive rush of endocannabinoids, endorphins, and dopamine that makes us feel good, reduces stress, and increases mental clarity. Find as many positives as you can, and more importantly, remember them.
3. Ride the Cue: Now, when you’re faced with the thought of doing the work, and all the reasons you don’t want to, focus on remembering those good things as positive cues. Sure, you can also focus on the rational concept that this is simply good for you, and the extrinsic benefits of looking great and fitting into those old jeans, but you’ve got to go beyond that stuff. Appeal to the good things that you felt last time, and your subconscious will allow your rational mind to win until the habit is formed.
Here’s how this worked out for me this summer. First, I zeroed in on the fact that I love to hike, just for the sake of it, compared with “working out.” That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to get me to do it consistently, though.
I enjoy hiking up Mount Sanitas, right at the western edge of Boulder. The first 15 minutes is the steepest and most vigorous part of the climb, and despite my affinity for the activity, the thought of that first leg is a major deterrent when I’m not feeling perfectly motivated (which is most of the time).
The cool thing is, after that tough 15 minutes, the trail eases up. Even better, on the way down, I feel exhilarated while embracing the natural beauty and the gift of gravity. That plus the way I feel for the rest of the day, and the clarity it brings to my work, are the things that get me back to the bottom of Mount Sanitas to do that brutal first 15 minutes.
Maybe, like me, you already figured this out (other research on intrinsic motivation got me there). If not, check out these two articles for more detail and the research behind the approach:
- One-Two Punch of “Cue and Reward” Makes Exercise a Habit
- Less Pain, More Gain: How Memory Affects Your Workout
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