Why it’s time to redefine how we think about exercise

Fitness & Sports Health

by Joanne Sotelo, MD

Apr 25, 2019

Have you ever wished you loved working out as much as you love eating? I know I have.

For years, we’ve heard over and over about all the benefits of purposeful physical activity, including prolonging your lifespan and lowering your risk of chronic disease. But why is that not enough to get us motivated?

The American Heart Association recommends adults get in 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise (which is about 20 minutes per day). When we can actually muster the motivation, most of us work out for outcomes like long-term health benefits and weight management, but these may be delayed rewards. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time motivating myself for something when I know I won’t see the fruits of my labor for a while.

So, how can we get more excited about working out right now in the moment? The trick might be in how we even think about exercise in the first place.

Related: 5 ways to squeeze more physical activity into your day

Exercise as its own reward

According to a recent study published in Physiology and Behavior, there are different motivating factors behind why we do the things we do. But it turns out how we value food and how we value exercise aren’t all that different.

The way the study participants regarded “pleasant exercise” was similar to the way they regarded “tasty food” — as intrinsically rewarding. Exercise itself was rewarding, but that value declined sharply if the participants had to wait for it.

Maybe it’s time we start to think about exercise differently and value it for the reward it can provide us in the moment, not just down the road.

This study measured the different motivators and how the value of a reward diminished over time at different rates. The researchers concluded that “internal motives related to enjoyment, competence and social interaction were stronger than external motives like appearance, health and weight motives.” The participants’ sense of reward changed when they were asked to choose between a smaller, slower reward versus a larger, later reward.

“People tend to decide in favor of the item that has the highest value at a particular moment in time,” one of the study authors concluded. These findings partly explain why it is easier to think of eating food as more rewarding than going to the gym later. We’re impatient by nature, so we naturally gravitate to the rewards that we know will bring us joy and satisfaction right now.

But according to this research, exercise and food are both intrinsically rewarding. Maybe it’s time we start to think about exercise differently and value it for the reward it can provide us in the moment, not just down the road.

How to change your view of exercise

Try these 8 ideas to increase your motivation and make exercise more immediately rewarding — and more fun.

Seize the moment.

Do not snooze! Remember: the longer the delay, the less satisfying the reward. Don’t think, just put on your tennis shoes and go! Even quick bursts of exercise have value.

Challenge yourself.

Find an exercise plan that you can like but that also gives you a bit of a challenge. This way you can feel an immediate reward every time you accomplish it. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Get social.

Get a workout buddy and find your community! Make your workouts your social hour. It has been shown that group workouts can increase your workout capacity and brain plasticity associated with improved attention and memory. Not to mention, working out with friends is simply more fun.

Define your goals.

Even though we’re talking about short-term satisfaction, those long term goals still matter. Think of your “why” — why is this goal important to you? The deeper and more emotional your reasons are, the more motivating. Create a SMART goal: smart, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound. Then envision yourself, in detail, as if you had already accomplished these goals. Writing down your goals will help reinforce that you are truly working toward something great.

Start small.

Give yourself permission to listen to your body and appreciate it for everything it can do. Do not let an “all or nothing” mentality take you off track. Every bit of movement counts — try taking a stroll after lunch or squeezing in a quick workout at home using one of the many available fitness apps. It doesn’t always have to be a marathon.

Plan for success.

Plan, plan, plan… Schedule your workouts ahead of time, prepare your gym clothes the night before, and get your pump up music ready, so you’re ready to go when it’s time.

Welcome motivational messages.

Make motivation a daily discipline. Sign up for a fitness newsletter, and inspire yourself with quotes, videos and articles that are uplifting to you and consistent with your goals. Then, when those messages come in, seize the moment.

Stay positive.

And finally, smile! This positive energy will keep you moving forward and help you enjoy exercise in the moment.

Exercise shouldn’t be a punishment or a burden you carry around with you every day. It also shouldn’t be something you have to bribe yourself to check off the list. Exercise should be something you enjoy. Embrace the moment and discover ways to enjoy exercise today.

About the Author

Joanne Sotelo, MD, is a psychiatrist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Round Rock.

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