Your doctor's telling you; your family's telling you; your company's HR department is telling you. Sometimes it seems like everyone is telling you to get more exercise.
If regular exercise is so good for us, why is it so hard to find the motivation to exercise?
You might find it hard to make exercise a priority when there are so many other priorities vying for your attention at any given moment. Whether those other priorities are "important" like your job or your family, or "unimportant" like watching a favorite TV show, doesn't really matter, because in the moment, that other stuff creates a stronger pull.
To tip the balance in favor of exercise, you've got to increase its "pull" on your priorities. Two techniques can help you increase your motivation to exercise: intrinsic motivation and habit.
Researchers have found that exercise progam participants are more likely to stick with their program when they are intrinsically motivated to exercise. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from within. It's the sense that your exercise program is enjoyable and brings pleasure or satisfaction in and of itself--regardless of how it makes your body look or any health benefits the exercise provides.
To take advantage of the power of intrinsic motivation, choose an exercise that you truly enjoy. Don't be afraid to be creative and generous in your definition of exercise. If riding a bike makes you feel like a kid again, cycling may be your exercise of choice. But just because other people are wearing tight jerseys and clipping into their pedals doesn't mean you have to. If cruising around on flat, paved trails is more your style, that's the exercise you should choose.
Walking, gardening and dancing can all be terrific workouts, even though you might not think of them as exercise. Any activity that elevates your heart rate and gets your muscles moving counts as exercise, and the more you enjoy it, the more you'll do it.
Using Habit to Build Intrinsic Motivation
OK, but what if you need more motivation than that? What if you have painful arthritis or you're so overweight that even walking is difficult? Or what if you like to walk but hate to lift weights and that's what your doctor wants you to do for your bone and muscle health?
How do you develop intrinsic motivation when you don't have any to begin with? Habit.
I like to think about it this way: there are lots of things we do in our lives that we don't really like doing, but we like having done them. In my life that includes things like cleaning house and paying bills. I don't actually enjoy doing them, but I'm satisfied when I have done them and I don't like the consequences of not doing them. The best way to get over that feeling of dread that causes inertia is to create a habit, so the thing you don't like to do becomes an automatic, streamlined part of your day that you eventually don't even think about.
Building a new habit takes some willpower and sheer determination up front, but if you design the process right, you'll end up with an effortless habit that relieves you of the need to muster new motivation every time you try to exercise.
First, commit to a tiny increment of time. I recommend that beginning exercisers commit to just five minutes per day, but you may need to start with even less time if you are easily winded or have painful joints. The consistency is more important than the duration at this point.
Next, commit to a meaningful trial period. How many days will you commit to exercising for that five minutes per day? I recommend at least 90 days. Some people will be able to build a habit in less time, but over a span of 90 days you're likely to encounter all sorts of unexpected roadblocks (like vacations, holidays, travel for work, illnesses, car trouble and other situations that so often derail our exercise plans). If you can maintain a consistent 5-minute-per-day habit for 90 days, you'll be well on the way toward making exercise as natural a part of your life as brushing your teeth or brewing your morning coffee. And trust me, when you're getting towed to the mechanic, you'll be glad that you only committed to five minutes per day.
You may be thinking, how can 5 minutes per day for 90 days amount to anything? The recommended amount of exercise is 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Don't worry; you'll get there. Right now we're just trying to build a habit that will feed your intrinsic motivation. If you can maintain that simple task for 90 days, you'll have 90 days of success piled one on top of the other. In just five minutes per day, you're unlikely to encounter any of the issues that might have turned you off in the past: sore muscles, sweaty clothes, aching joints, breathlessness. All you'll have is 90 days of knowing that you accomplished your goal successfully. And success breeds the confidence and satisfaction that become intrinsic motivation.
In your 90 day trial period you'll get the opportunity to experiment with the time of day that works best for you, and you'll figure out what you need to do to remind you to get it done. Hopefully you'll also have experimented with different types of exercise; after all, you only have to do it for 5 minutes.
To turn your habit into intrinsic motivation even faster, take a minute at the end of each exercise session to write down one positive feeling you're feeling: pride, satisfaction, increased energy, better flexibility, whatever. Just the simple act of focusing your attention on the positive aspects of your new exercise habit will fuel your intrinsic motivation, making it that much easier to get it done the next time.
After 90 days, if you have been 100% successful at maintaining the daily habit, feel free to begin adding time to your exercise, just 2 or 3 minutes at a time, and only if you feel like it. Knowing that you only have to add more time on the days that it feels good reinforces the sense that you're exercising because it feels good--because you're intrinsically motivated to do so. Before you know it, you'll be thinking of exercise as something that feels good and that you can't imagine leaving out of your day. And before you know it, you'll have effortlessly and painlessly built up to 20 or 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.
Give it a try for 90 days, and let us know in the comments how you fared. Did you build a habit in 90 days? Could you feel the intrinsic motivation growing? Did you find it easy to add time to your workout sessions once you had the habit in place? Did you experiment with some new exercises?
(Image credit: SweetOnVeg)