We know exercise is good for us. So why do so few of us do it consistently? It’s tempting to say we don’t have enough time, but it’s more likely that we haven’t found a compelling, deeply personal reason that motivates us to work out – our personal “why”.
It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. Just for fun, let’s rattle off a few benefits of regular, moderate exercise:
- Reduces risk of diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease
- Promotes strong, healthy bones (if weight bearing)
- Helps maintain strength and muscle mass, especially as we age
- Helps maintain our ability to move effectively, especially as we age
- Helps digestion
- Improves mood and helps prevent or manage depression
- Enhances confidence and self esteem
- Helps our brains function better (improved cognition)
- Improves posture
- Helps manage body weight
If we had a pill that provided all of these benefits, we’d think it too good to be true.
Now, I personally like to think about the long term benefits of exercise, like reducing the risk of disease. My sweet mother had osteoporosis, and it saddened me to see the discomfort it caused. This is one of the unsung benefits of weight lifting, in my opinion – strong bones. It’s the ultimate weight bearing exercise.
But let’s get real. Absent some kind of personal experience like a loved one’s struggles, a long-term benefit like reducing disease risk is unlikely to motivate most of us.
This is a bit of a bummer, to be perfectly honest. When we take small steps to nurture our health, whether eating veggies or exercising, it’s an investment in ourselves. These tiny deposits add up over time to something very real, just as the power of compound interest transforms a 401(k) over time. I wrote about the “investment” mindset previously, and I still think it’s valuable.
At the same time, motivation is a tricky subject. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the science of motivation, and it’s really juicy stuff. More to come on that, but in the meantime, I couldn’t wait to share an idea from behavioral scientist Dr. Michele Seager, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.
The idea? Focus on the short-term benefits of exercise. The here and now. What is it about exercise that helps you immediately?
It’s so simple, yet profound.
Depending on the exercise you choose, immediate benefits could include:
- A break from work or personal pressures – a mini vacation, if you will
- Improved mood
- Improved energy
- Better thinking
- Time to think about and process a thorny problem
- Time to spend with family or friends
- An opportunity for fun, entertainment, and/or play
- Support of good habits – exercise being a “keystone habit” that often triggers other desirable behaviors
- A diversionary tactic to escape bad habits – such as overeating at night
- An opportunity to learn (and therefore achieve) something new – whether dance steps, how to activate a muscle, or a Turkish Get-up
- An opportunity to model good behavior for someone you care about, whether a teenager or co-workers – by taking the lead, you give them “permission” or give them a roadmap to do the same
- Improved sleep
- Better productivity
For me, the gym is a mini-vacation from daily pressures. When I started my current job about ten years ago, I had trouble pulling myself away because I always felt so behind, but I gave myself permission to work out without guilt. I almost never take my phone, so there’s no calls, no texting, no instant messages. It’s a much-needed change of pace that helps me manage stress simply by giving me a break.
I also find the gym to really help me manage cravings. I’m an emotional eater, so after a long, hard day, it’s not uncommon for me to munch all night. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, dinner turns into a four or five hour affair. But if I go to the gym right after a sensible dinner, I’m not eating and not feeding that bad habit. By the time I get home, the cravings have passed.
If you want to exercise but can’t seem to get going, one small step would be to identify one or more immediate benefits for you. Whether a boost in mood, time with a friend, or getting more done, find your personal motivator and make it your focus.