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.
Images: Workout stamp, Hot sauce, TV set image.
I’m writing a positive psych course on wellness for an Australian University. In researching the course I found the following research that might be of interest.
Affective response to an acute moderate-intensity exercise stimulus predicted self-reported physical activity 6 and 12 months later. The findings could have implications for prescription of exercise intensity, as exercising at an intensity that yields a positive affective response may lead to greater participation in physical activity programs among previously sedentary adults.
Psychology of Sport and Exercise
Volume 9, Issue 3, May 2008, Pages 231-245
The following new research seems to question the “enjoy the burn”
Intensity did not influence the positive changes from pre- to post-exercise, but it did influence the responses during exercise, with the intensity that exceeded the ventilatory threshold eliciting significant and relatively homogeneous decreases in pleasure. Conclusions: Exceeding the intensity of the ventilatory threshold appears to reduce pleasure, an effect that could negatively impact adherence.
Annals of Behavioral Medicine
Volume 35, Issue 2, April 2008, Pages 136-149
You included lots of great ideas — thanks for the article on exercise! These are good ideas for everyone, but especially for teens because sports opportunities become more limited in middle and high school– and they get very little physical movmement during the school day.
These are great tips. What do you think about the idea that we have a limited capacity to self-regulate? There is so much we can do in a day.
Exercise is great if it is a priority, but can we do it when we have other demands on self-regulation that must come first?
And if we don’t have those other demands, then is it so hard? A good GP (personal physician) should be setting health goals with us. A simple request is usually all that is required provided that is all that is required.
For me, doing something that I enjoy while I exercise also helps me get to it daily, particularly when they are things I don’t otherwise have time to do. I’m not sure I could ever enjoy regular day-in day-out exercise for its own sake, but I do like watching Fairy Tale Theater while I row and working Sudoku puzzles while I work on the exercise bike. My husband has a collection of large-print stay-open-by-themselves books for the stand of his Nordic track.
Just to add to the collection…
Jo, research shows that exercise increases your ability to self regulate
Have you tried savouring the post exercise experience?
Thank you for your interest in my article!
I firmly believe exercise is a priority. Humans were not made to be sedentary – before we invented technology, we had to find and kill our dinner before we could eat it! Technology is a great thing and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to the time where energy consumption was directly dependent on energy expenditure, but I think that adding movement to our days is a clear step toward a more balanced and fulfilling life. The benefits of exercise in terms of self-efficacy, energy, mood regulation, stress reduction and brain development are certainly worth investing at least a half-hour three to four times a week.
I think Wayne made a great point that exercise increases your ability to self-regulate. Also interesting is the fact that exercise does not have to depend on self-regulation all the time. I believe that a lot of my suggestions precisely address this issue. Making sure you are in a good mood beforehand, training with a partner, trying out new things, using your strengths and turning the “task” into a stimulating challenge are all ingredients that can help turn exercise into something enjoyable. Wayne questions if “enjoying the burn” is a good suggestion. My response is that like anything else, I recognize that it may not work for everyone, but it will definitely work for some. Once going to the gym is no longer a huge effort, people typically enjoy reaching to the next level and feeling the progress. That’s at least my experience, gathered after a few years instructing fitness classes.
Keep up the good workouts everyone!
Marie-Josee, we have just finished running some positive psych training for a gym. Four important things we taught them were;
1. Everyone is different – find out which form of exercise gives people maximum enjoyment
2. Exercise has nothing to do with weight loss (its amazing how many gym instructors believe this)
2. Motivation needs to be intrinsic (not extrinsic)
3. Teach people to savour the post exercise experience
Could you say more about “Teach people to savor the post exercise experience”? I couldn’t relate to your question — so I’m wondering what the teaching would be like.
Excellent article! I just forwarded it to all of my friends and family.
Hope life is wonderful — I’m always hitting the gym regularly, and I contribute much of my zest to working out and sleeping!
Simply involves doing a body scan and identifying the pleasant sensations associated with exercise.
It varies from person to person. eg the location, the actual feeling (warmth, heaviness/lightness, tingling etc), does it move
Then spending some time soaking in the experience and perhaps seeing if you can imagine amplifying the sensation
eg make it heavier or lighter and then spreading it throughout your entire body
When you get good at this you can then recall the feeling and activate the positive affect associated with exercise.
All based on research that shows that positive emotions are encoded in the body – recall the physical feeling and you activate the emotion.
Thanks for your support, Nick! I love that you decided to stimulate others!
Wayne, I totally agree with your suggestions! In regards to motivation being intrinsic, I agree it is ideal, but I think that very often, people decide to undertake exercise for extrinsic reasons (like losing weight or “I guess I should”). For these people, it is over time as they feel the enjoyment and other resulting benefits that they get to intrinsic motivation. As you know, unfortunately numerous are those who give up before they get to that stage. Any suggestion on how to help intrinsic motivation emerge faster? I think your body scan suggestion can help. Any other techniques you would like to share?
Marie-Josee, Some other tips
1. Use a personality tool – they provide far more information than a strengths tool about motivation
2. SMART goals – don’t give them a weight loss goal in relation to exercise as no evidence that exercise helps with weight loss
3.Teach them to use exercise as a form of meditation – for example in doing weights really focus on moving th weight smoothly and really enjoy the sensation at the end of each series of reps
4. Move them onto intrinsic motivation as soon as you can.
5. Get people to observe how their mood chnages after exercise – diarise it and tell it to a gym buddy in an active contructive way
What a timely piece about exercise! I just started back at the gym after a long layup. I’ve been hitting the bike and I find it relaxing.
You really tapped into the motivation behind exercise. I loved reading your well-formed thoughts on the topic. Especially true for me was that fear or loss is a better motivator than gain (with exercise). Fearing the consequences of avoiding workouts was a better prod than expecting to get ripped.
The more I think about it and read about it, the more motivation resembles persuasion.