I used to be a major couch potato and it made me miserable. But by applying these simple lessons on the science of habit formation that I share in this article I started and stuck to exercising regularly and you can too.
Finding motivation to exercise is hard. If you’re like most people you’ve probably started and stopped exercise programs countless times and given up after a few weeks. Maybe you even have a gym membership that you aren’t using. I was like that too. The worst part of this cycle is that over time it can erode your faith in yourself and make you even less likely to follow through. First, don’t get down on yourself. Most people do this. It’s why nearly 80% of people aren’t fit. Feeling bad about what you did in the past is a waste of time and energy unless you use those bad feelings to fuel your future success. Second, this post isn’t a rehash of what you’ve heard before, because if you had heard any of this before you wouldn’t be here looking for motivation. If you internalize these ideas this will be the last exercise motivation you ever look for.
Knowledge is a rumor until it lives in the body. Papua New Guinea proverb
Ideas are just abstract concepts until you feel them for yourself, in your own body and through your own experience. Make it your goal to internalize. Get intimately familiar with how these concepts apply to you specifically. Don’t autopilot through this. You can’t take the back seat in your own success. It’s not easy or automatic, but it also doesn’t have to be painful.
Your Mind & Habit Formation
You probably know that your brain is a network of neurons that exchange information at junctures called synapses. Your thoughts and feelings are what encode and enforce neural circuits in your brain. In super simple terms your mind is the sum of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. What you may not know is that you are not your mind. If you think of your mind as a computer, you are not the hard drive or the processor, you are the programmer. We usually call this programming process “learning.” But learning isn’t just something you do in school or to pick up a new skill. You are always learning whether you are aware of it or not. The more you repeat a thought or a pattern, the stronger the neural circuits you build. There’s just one big difference between your mind and a computer, and it isn’t sentience. The difference between your mind and a computer is that a computer is only programmed actively whereas your mind can be programmed actively or passively. Your mind isn’t selective. It encodes the input it’s given repeatedly, whether passively or actively. It’s how we learn good habits and bad habits. This encoding process is supercharged by the reward pathways in your brain. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg describes the way reward pathways and habit formation work as a habit loop.
The process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future; – Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit
Bad habits are easy to pick up because they feel good. This applies to any number of scenarios. -When you come home from work and you feel drained (cue) you eat a carby salty snack or reach for a drink (routine) and then you feel good (reward.) -You think about exercising (cue), but you decide not to (routine) and it feels good not to (reward).
Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. – Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit
The problem is that habits become automatic. The strong pull of habits and reward pathways in your brain create automatic processes that make motivation really difficult. When you aren’t aware that repeated actions create patterns that create habits it’s passive programming. This gives you a sense of powerlessness and the feeling that you just don’t have what it takes to accomplish what you want. It becomes a vicious and devastating cycle that robs you of your agency and your ability to succeed. The good news is that in the same way bad habits can be formed, good habits can also be formed. When you realize that you are not your mind, you understand that you actually have a lot of agency in rewiring your mind. You are the programmer in charge. You can trust in the process and you can learn to trust in yourself again. When you take back control as programmer of your mind, you regain control of yourself and your life. It’s a simple and painless process and I’ll tell you exactly how to do it.
Reprogramming Your Mind To Love Exercise
Do your exercise efforts usually look like this:
Step 1: Realize one day that you’re totally out of shape and really unhappy with your body/the way you look/the way you feel etc etc.
Step 2: Embark on a really ambitious workout routine promising to hit the gym 5-7 days a week fuelled by nothing but sheer determination because you’re also starting a super clean diet where you’re going to eat nothing but broccoli and chicken breast.
Step 3: Hate your life.
Step 4: Burn out a few weeks later. Stop exercising. Stop dieting. Binge on all the carbs in the house and feel like a total failure.
Step 5: Repeat as necessary.
This is painful and unpleasant and it will never work. Factoring in what we now know about habit forming, this isn’t taking advantage of the brain’s reward pathways and is unlikely to form any kind of long term habit. In fact, it’s probably likely to deter you from wanting to exercise. To find the motivation to exercise you have to start small, you have to get out of your comfort zone, and you have to love the process.
Walk Before You Run
I am addicted to running. I love it. I wasn’t always that way. I always wanted to get into running but it was so uncomfortable. I would get outside or step on a treadmill with a lot of motivation, huff my way through the first kilometer then stop because I had a stitch or was throwing up in my mouth. It felt terrible. I found myself at Step 1 of yet another exercise effort and I happened to pick up Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J Ratey. I don’t know where to start praising this totally life changing book. The basic premise is that exercise balances neurotransmitters.
If exercise came in pill form, it would be plastered across the front page, hailed as the blockbuster drug of the century. – John J Ratey Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
As a long time anxiety sufferer this is exactly what I needed. It literally changed my life and also happened to come along at just the right time because it taught me to walk before running and transformed my approach to exercise. Instead of proceeding to Step 2 and beyond like I normally would, I made the conscious decision to go outside and move until I expelled my anxious energy and felt better. I didn’t try to run 5 kilometres straight. I didn’t put any time requirements or demands on myself. I just went outside and moved until I felt better. Every day. For months. (That’s pretty much still what I’m doing.) I enjoyed it, so it formed a habit. “I should go for a walk” – cue Go for a walk – routine Enjoy the walk – reward
Over time I started to feel the need for more active movement. This is why people say that exercise can be addictive. I wasn’t getting the same good feelings from my walks. I needed more. I had to “up my dosage.” I fully took this process to heart and did something that a lot of people would think is crazy. I started skipping.
Side note: why don’t adults skip? I mean why isn’t skipping the biggest exercise craze since zumba? Why is jogging acceptable but if you see a grown man skipping it looks weird? Get over your adult hang ups and forget about what people think. Skipping is so much more fun than jogging and will make you feel amazing.
Let’s make skipping great again.
Essentially I made the process fun and in a lot of ways I probably looked like a kid at play. Did you know that play has really significant neurological benefits for adults? So I skipped. I also started running. Then I did jump squats. And frog walks. I did pull ups on tree branches. I raced against myself. As the days went on I started to love exercise. My body adapted, I got less cramps, and I even toned up a bit. Most importantly, regular exercise became a habit that I didn’t need to motivate myself to do. It is reward in itself. I love every minute and I’ll never give it up.
Find Joy In Movement
Don’t start an exercise regimen where exercise is something you hate doing. Start a movement regimen where you enjoy feeling your body move. There is so much joy in movement. Explore with your body. Discover the forgotten spaces in every finger tip and toe. Go to the park, swing on the swings, play on the jungle gym. Do sloppy crunches and leg lifts in front of the TV at night. Don’t sit still. Experiment with slow muscle control and explosive speed. Play with balance. Reach as far as you can. Dance. Jump around. Shake. See what your body can do. Move until you feel good again. You will feel good again. When you start with movement you enjoy doing, two things happen. First, you’ll become more aware and more mindful. When we do things we enjoy it puts our brains into flow state that has a similar neurological effect as meditation. This will transfer over into your daily life. You’ll be more aware of your energy levels and the fluctuations in your mood caused by external factors. You’ll have more control over your emotions. You’ll feel more present, more engaged, and more yourself. Second, you’ll encode good habits using your brain’s reward pathways. Over time it will become easier and easier to exercise, and in fact you’ll crave more varied movement. Every enjoyable movement strengthens those neural pathways and strengthens your motivation and drive.The funny part of this is that exercise actually gives you motivation to exercise. The more you exercise, the more you improve your brain, and the more that makes you want to exercise. Being aware of your ability to form these good habits is how you take back control as programmer.
Learning the asanas of yoga, the positions of ballet, the skills of gymnastics, the elements of figure skating, the contortions of Pilates, the forms of Karate – all these practices engage nerve cells throughout the brain. Studies of dancers, for example, show that moving to an irregular rhythm versus a regular one improves brain plasticity. – John J Ratey Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
Escape Your Comfort Zone
Movement is even better for your brain and for habit formation if you combine it with going outside. Gyms can be stressful environments. Our homes are repositories of home concerns. Going outside clears your head and contributes to rewiring neural pathways and setting your mind up for further improvement. Getting out of your comfort zone is necessary for growth.
The best exercise is one that you enjoy doing. The best exercise regimen is a varied one. Your goal shouldn’t be to do a bunch of stuff so you can get in shape and have a nice body. Your goal should be to get in shape so you can do a bunch of stuff and appreciate the body you have! When you start to exercise regularly you will start to know your body better. The result is that you will love your body because it gives you the precious gift of being able to take every opportunity to experience the joy of movement in all its beautiful forms. Your body is how you experience this wondrous thing we call life. Take full advantage. No matter who you are or where you are, exercise is the single best thing you can do for yourself. When you accomplish this one thing you will feel like you can accomplish anything. When you accomplish this one thing you’ll begin to trust in yourself and your capabilities. When you learn to trust in yourself and internalize the fact that you are the programmer in charge, you realize that you have so much more power than you ever thought you did.
Knowledge is a rumor until it lives in the body. Papua New Guinea proverb
Featured image credit @audd13