Workout motivation. You don’t have any. You know exercise is good…and you still don’t do it. You’re not alone.
We all want a magic pill that makes us smarter, happier and better looking. Good news is the magic pill is here. Bad news is it’s exercise.
Time to dump a bucket of solve on this problem and make you awesome. And we’ll do it by listening to your favorite music, hanging out with friends and taking lessons from Seinfeld. Sound good? Cool.
Let’s get to it…
The Magic Pill Is a Treadmill
Some will say they play Sudoku or brain-training games, and that keeps their mind as quick and powerful as a jungle cat. Or they meditate. Or they take gobs of magic supplements. How do those fare in an IQ deathmatch against exercise?
Exercise wins by knockout in the first round:
The evidence for exercise boosting cognitive function is head-and-shoulders above that for brain training, drugs, nutritional supplements and meditation. Scientifically, on the current evidence, exercise is the best way to enhance your cognitive function.
When you exercise, it boosts BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps you learn faster. How much faster? As much as 20 percent.
“One of the prominent features of exercise, which is sometimes not appreciated in studies, is an improvement in the rate of learning, and I think that’s a really cool take-home message,” Cotman says. “Because it suggests that if you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently.” Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF.
Want to be happy? Exercise is as effective in treating depression as antidepressants. And if that ain’t enough, people who exercised had a lower relapse rate than those taking meds.
After four months, all three groups experienced similar improvements in happiness. The very fact that exercise proved just as helpful as anti-depressants is remarkable, but the story doesn’t end here. The groups were then tested six months later to assess their relapse rate. Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38 percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31 percent relapse rate. The biggest shock, though, came from the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9 percent!
But it doesn’t stop there. Exercise makes you less likely to get sick. It makes you more creative. Getting to the gym boosts confidence and helps you sleep better at night. Like money? Exercising is connected to a 5 percent to 10 percent salary increase.
How does exercise have such incredible powers over such a wide domain?
Because exercise changes how you see yourself. It ain’t all about biology and calories. It’s about identity.
When I spoke to Charles Duhigg, best-selling author of The Power of Habit, he said the identity effects of regular exercise have been shown to set off a cascade of positive behavior that can change your life:
When you start exercising habitually, according to studies, you start eating more healthfully. That makes sense. You start feeling good about your body. For many people, when they start exercising, they stop using their credit cards quite so often. They procrastinate less at work. They do their dishes earlier in the day. It seems to be evidence that for many people, exercise is a keystone habit. Once you start to change your exercise habits, it sets off a chain reaction that changes other habits as well.
(To learn how to get in great shape using only psychology, click here.)
Okay, you know the benefits. But how do you get the motivation to follow through? First, let’s kill that awful dread you feel whenever you think about having to go to the gym…
1) How to Kill the Dread
Anticipating a visit to the gym can feel like anticipating a root canal: “I’m gonna feel awful. My heart will be pounding out of my chest, my lungs will be a lake of fire and the pain will be worse than a Pauly Shore double feature.”
Fear not. There’s a very simple solution to this, proven by science:
Stop thinking about the beginning.
Getting started is unpleasant and research shows, when you think about exercise, you give that too much emphasis:
People underestimate how much they enjoy exercise because of a myopic focus on the unpleasant beginning of exercise, but this tendency can be harnessed or overcome, potentially increasing intention to exercise.
It’s the same problem you face with any kind of procrastination. You think about how uncomfortable it is to get started…and so you don’t. Which is why a great solution to putting things off is a “dash.”
You make yourself work on whatever you’re dreading for 10 minutes…and often you realize once you get started that it ain’t so bad.
Don’t just think about the painful beginning. That’s not fair. Think about how good you feel when you’re making progress toward your goals.
(To learn the secrets to beating chronic procrastination, click here.)
Alright, you’ve killed dread by thinking about more than the crummy start. That’s not too hard. You’ve done it before. But how do you get consistent about exercising regularly?
2) Make a Plan. (No, a Real Plan.)
Writing down a specific plan (that includes where, when and how) makes a huge difference in whether you will build good habits.
When researchers just made people think about how much they planned to exercise, time at the gym increased 138 percent:
U.S. researchers studying personal habits found if people are asked in advance how much they plan to exercise, they will exercise more than those not asked… For example, the researchers asked college students how much they planned to exercise. Compared to the control group, those asked about future exercising did about 94 additional minutes, or 138 percent, more exercise than in the previous week.
I know what some people are thinking, “Yeah, Eric, I’ve made exercise plans before, and they didn’t work.”
That’s because you didn’t think about obstacles. As the old saying goes, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Problem here is the enemy is you. Luckily, you’ve faced this enemy on a daily basis.
Unleash your inner cynic for a second and ask yourself, “What is going to stop me from getting to the gym?” You probably know the answer. Now make sure your plan addresses that.
The study of “implementation intentions” shows you should create little “If-Then” responses to known stumbling blocks. For instance:
“If I feel too tired to go to the gym, then I will go and just do half of my usual workout.”
Can something this simple really make a difference? Oh, yeah. “If-Then” plans boosted exercise compliance from 39 percent to 91 percent.
Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work”). The results were dramatic: weeks later, 91 percent of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39 percent of nonplanners!
(To learn how to build good habits, click here.)
So you’ve overcome dread, and you’ve made a plan that would make Patton proud. But how do you make yourself want to exercise like those disgustingly exercise-addicted folks who seem so happy all the time? There’s a trick…
3) Make It a Game
When I hear something over and over from very different sources, I take notice. And “make it a game” is one of those things:
- What’s one of the things people who live through disaster scenarios have in common? They make survival a game.
- Kids do better in school when it’s treated like a game.
- How do Navy SEALs make it through their impossible training? They make it a game.
And making it a game is how Jerry Seinfeld got so funny.
Brad Isaac asked the comedian how he developed the discipline to write every day. Seinfeld made it a game.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
A simple calendar and a red magic marker can make all the difference when it comes to being funny—or getting in shape.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, but what if you’re at the gym and you do feel sweaty and uncomfortable and awful? And nothing sciencey or all-smarty-pants that I write is gonna change that feeling. No problem. We have another arrow in our quiver. An emotional one…
4) Fight Feelings With Feelings
Specifically, we need to fight bad feelings with good feelings.
So listen to your favorite music. Sound silly? Wrong. Research shows it improves exercise performance and reduces your perception of discomfort:
The performance under Preferred Music (9.8 +/- 4.6 km) was greater than under Nonpreferred Music (7.1 +/- 3.5 km) conditions. Therefore, listening to Preferred Music during continuous cycling exercise at high intensity can increase the exercise distance, and individuals listening to Nonpreferred Music can perceive more discomfort caused by the exercise.
In fact, playing music from the happiest time in your life makes you happier anywhere. When I spoke to neuroscientist Alex Korb, he said:
One of the strong effects of music comes from its ability to remind us of previous environments in which we were listening to that music. That’s really mediated by this one limbic structure called the hippocampus which is really important in a thing called “context dependent memory.” Let’s say college was the happiest time of your life. If you start listening to the music that you were listening to at that time, it can help you feel more connected to that happier time in your life and makes it more present.
Grit and willpower are great, but what you need right now is a solid Spotify playlist.
(To learn what the music you love says about you—and how it can improve your life—click here.)
Alright, future gym-rat, we covered a lot. Now is the time when we round it all up—and learn the final super tip that can make this all much easier and more fun…
Here’s how to develop workout motivation:
- Stop Focusing on the Beginning: Yeah, starting the workout sucks. But the other parts can be great.
- Make a Plan: Make it specific. Write it down. And use “If-Then” to address obstacles before they happen.
- Make It a Game: If a calendar and a magic marker can create a show like Seinfeld, it can get you to the gym.
- Play the Music You Love: It’s not just nice—it makes your workout better and has pain-go-bye-bye power.
Want to take all this to the next level? It’s easy:
Plan a walk with a friend who likes to exercise.
Anticipating time with a friend kills the dread. Plus, you made a plan. And you added some good ol’ peer pressure to the mix. Triple threat.
And your friends influence you. Spending time with people who don’t exercise makes you more likely to be a couch potato:
Evidence suggests that the effects are caused primarily by friends who were the least fit, thus supporting the provocative notion that poor physical fitness spreads on a person-to-person basis.
Just doing this is enough to make you much happier. When Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard studied 5,000 people around the world ages 18-80, they found people were happiest during three activities:
Socializing, exercise and sexy time.
You’ve now set a time to do two of the three. (The third is, well, a different type of exercise.)
What are you waiting for? I’ve rambled enough, and you’ve read enough. Email this post to a friend and plan a time to go for a walk. Yes, right now.
The easy prescription for a better life? Put one foot in front of the other. With friends.
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.