Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
Fields as diverse as kinesiology, psychology, physiology, medicine, and neuroscience assert that physical activity helps prevent and treat mental health problems, increases subjective well-being, reduces stress, boosts self-esteem, sharpens thinking and improves overall quality of life. Studies have been conducted with populations ranging from children to adolescents to women during PMS, pregnancy, and all the way to menopause! If any intervention is that effective, there is no reason for anyone to not do it, right?
For most of us however, fear of loss is a stronger motivator than the attraction of gain. When it comes to undertaking exercise, the fear of “losing” time, experiencing initial low self-efficacy and dreading physical effort and discomfort may all weigh heavier than the perspective of feeling better, losing weight, and enjoying increased energy. That’s why mustering the motivation to regularly put on one’s sneakers seems an insurmountable challenge for so many.
So if I tell you that exercise has also been found to stimulate brain cell growth, I expect non-exercisers to maintain the status quo. However, if I say that recent progress in the field of neurobiology has found that both physical inactivity and stress shrivel and whither our brain – yes, not exercising actually speeds up aging and decreases the ability of your CPU – are you now tempted to go push a few pounds of iron?
The choice is yours. Usually, though, the difficulty resides not in understanding why we should exercise, but in finding and maintaining the motivation to get it done. If you need extra help committing to an exercise routine, here are my top 10 recommendations, based on positive psychology research, to help you overcome the challenge:
1. Sleep enough and eat nutritiously. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz demonstrate that sleeping enough and eating nutritious foods including complex carbohydrates that give pre-exercise energy are clearly part of the equation.
2. Get into a good mood. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes that happy moods help us be more productive, more active, healthier and more resilient. These are all ingredients that facilitate exercising. Before you jump in your sneakers, make sure to add a skip into your step by listening to upbeat music or calling your funniest friend.
3. Other people matter, says Christopher Peterson. Those who are new to exercise do better when accompanied by a training buddy. My recommendation here is to find more than one: if your usual partner can’t make it tonight, there’s somebody else to keep you motivated and accountable!
4. Use your strengths, states Tom Rath. High on hope? Reach for small, achievable goals that will boost your self-efficacy. Known by your friends for leadership? Focus on the example you are setting for your loved ones. Love to learn? Investigate a new exercise at each visit to the gym. There are endless ways to express your strengths via exercise.
5. Enjoy the burn. Many newcomers to the gym only make a half-hearted effort, hardly break a sweat, and quickly get discouraged because they don’t feel the benefits they signed up for. Unless your doctor advised otherwise, don’t be afraid to feel your heart rate go up and to learn to love the burn in your muscles. Just like some people enjoy the burn of spicy foods and others don’t, it’s mainly a question of choice.
6. Involve your mind. Many people say that training is too repetitive and therefore boring. Keep learning. Once you learn more about all the training areas (cardiovascular, endurance, strength, and flexibility), you’ll be stimulated to find the most effective exercise combinations.
7. Measure. As Chris Peterson puts it: “What is valued gets measured, but what is measured also gets valued.” Start measuring your training. Mark a calendar with your workout days on it. Keep a journal of your training routine. Build a chart showing your progress. Measure whatever works for you, but keep track of what gets done and congratulate yourself when you are doing well.
8. Get in flow. Foster flow by breaking down each session into smaller episodes, matching the challenge to your skill set, regularly assessing your progress, and applying your full concentration to the activity, suggests Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. For example, if you aim to run a total three miles, rather than worry about the full distance, think of it as three times one mile and try to achieve your personal best on each.
9. Use the peak-end rule. Barry Schwartz describes that we remember how much we like an event by how much we liked its peak and its end. By managing your routines so you love their end, you are more likely to remember your sessions favorably and therefore to repeat the experience.
10. Get good mind fuel after exercise. Exercise facilitates brain cell growth, shows John Ratey, and while your muscles are recuperating after the effort, your brain is actively busy building new synapses. What you do post-exercise is therefore essential to reaping the full benefits of your activity. Capitalize on how potent the next hour is by filling up on what you deem worthwhile – and avoiding what is not.
Next time you’re about to turn on your TV, take a minute to review this list and find something to get you into your gym gear. Most of the excuses for why we don’t exercise – the need to relax, the lack of energy, or the desire to put our children first – are actually reasons why we should.
In the end, if none of what I’ve written here nor anything you’ve ever heard about exercise sufficed to convince you to try it out, I’d like to suggest you give the following a quick thought: “The difference between tenacity and stubbornness is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.” – Anonymous.
Enjoy your workout!
Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.
Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press.
Quote used above: pp. 3-5.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Peterson, C. (2006). Lecture prepared for MAPP students, University of Pennsylvania.
Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Rath, T. (2008). Lecture prepared for MAPP students, University of Pennsylvania.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.