How can you learn to like exercise for life?
Lots of people have asked me how they can find motivation to exercise consistently. This article explores how you can find something you will love to do for life.
All or nothing cycle
A lot of us are trapped in an all or nothing cycle. You feel sluggish as you get to the end of the year and promise yourself you will embark on a diet and exercise regime next year. You sign yourself up to the gym, or a gruelling programme with a personal trainer. You put yourself on a strict no carbs and no sugar diet. You enthusiastically embrace your new exercise regime and diet for about three weeks. You lose a few pounds.
It then starts to really feel like chore, it’s not fun and results are slow anyway. You start to reduce your exercise from five times a week to three and then one and then stop completely. The “bad” food starts to creep back in and before you know it you are back to your pre-Christmas diet.
Does this sound familiar?
Motivation and willpower
Starting out like this with an unrealistic outlook in relation to exercise and diet is super common. Motivation is high when we start embracing new behaviour change. However, it doesn’t stay this way. Willpower and motivation peters out over time.
If you are embarking on an exercise or diet regime that you do not like, and consequently feels like a chore, you are simply not going to continue doing it no matter how much willpower you can muster.
How do you learn to like exercise?
So what is the key to finding sustainable exercise for life? This is a long and complex question and takes weeks of hard work to really get to the bottom of. It isn’t just about exercise or diet either, there are so many emotional and psychological hurdles and barriers to overcome. It’s also different for everyone.
These are questions I cover in my coaching and programme of change to really transform mindsets and attitudes towards exercise and fitness. To start with there are a couple of good questions to ask yourself about the activity you have in mind:
1. Is it something you like to do?
The most important point with finding an exercise that you will stick to is that it has to be something you like to do. If it’s something you have fun doing too then that’s an added bonus! There’s no point making yourself do something you really hate because you think it will help you lose weight or for another reason. Believe me, you just won’t stick to it.
If you are stuck with where to start on this one, sometimes it’s good to think back to what you loved doing as a kid. What did you spend hours of your time doing? Riding bikes? Swimming? Climbing trees? Skateboarding or roller-blading? Kicking a football against a wall? Playing frisbee?
It could literally be anything involving movement. It’s good to think outside of the box too as it might be something that is not traditionally considered “exercise” like dancing or gardening. Did you know that if you danced around your living room for 30 minutes a day you would burn between 300-400 calories?
Experiment with different activities. Ask yourself how do you feel when you are doing it? How do you feel after you’ve finished the activity? Does it bring you real joy? As behavioural science and exercise motivation expert Michelle Segar says “doing what you enjoy is a better motivator for exercising and it works”.
2. Is it something that you want to do for yourself?
You need to find something you are intrinsically motivated to do. This means finding something you are doing for your own internal reasons rather than extrinsic reasons for an outside goal.
Something which makes you feel good not because you are trying to lose weight, look a certain way, or achieve a goal for someone else. Again, if you start out doing something for extrinsic reasons you will most probably fail to continue as you will lose motivation and momentum.
Your new activity needs to have specific meaning for you. It needs to feel good in the moment or immediately after. Research shows that people who exercise purely for weight loss actually exercise less than people who exercise because it makes them feel good.
Daniel Pink talks about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in his great book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. He discusses how if an activity contains three aspects: purpose, mastery and autonomy it will be something we gain enjoyment and fulfilment from.
For example, imagine if you just got a new bike because you wanted to cycle to see your friends more often. There’s your purpose. You would need to master the art of cycling on roads, and perhaps remind yourself of how to actually ride. There’s your mastery. Having the freedom to cycle when and wherever you like is your autonomy.
If you can find a new activity which gives you three of these things you are going to be well on the way to finding something which sticks.
3. Does the activity fit into your weekly schedule?
It’s super important that your chosen activity fits easily into your daily routine. It needs to slot in around your other responsibilities i.e. family, work and your social life. Don’t underestimate the importance of small things like how to fit in the post-workout shower.
Think about the time of day which will work best for you. If you have young kids when is the best time to do something? Can you wake up super early a couple of days a week and workout before they wake up?
Remember that you don’t need to do a full hour workout to feel the benefits of exercise. You can build movement into your day which Michelle Segar calls “opportunities to move”. For example building small habits into your day like doing five squats every time you go to the loo or doing five press ups as you wait for your kettle to boil. Behavioural expert BJ Fogg runs a great free five day Tiny Habits programme teaching you how to connect new habits to existing ones.
4. Is it something others will support you to do?
The activity will be more likely to last and be sustainable if you have support from family and friends and even someone to do it with you. For example, if you have young kids getting buy in from your partner or from family, who can take care of the kids whilst you are taking part in your activity, is going to be essential.
It’s also crucial for those who love you to understand how important this activity is for you. You need to sell the benefits to them and ensure they are fully on board. E.g. if you take an hour and a half to swim once a week it does mean you are away from the kids for that time. But it also means you will be more relaxed, more energised, less stressed and have more focus. You will altogether be a more calm and loving parent and partner for the rest of that evening and even that week!
If you can set up a reciprocal arrangement even better. i.e. on Monday evenings I’ll take care of the kids so you can get out and do your weekly badminton game and then on Wednesdays we’ll swap so I can get to my boxercise class.
If you can find a friend to exercise with even better. Working out with others is proven to increase motivation, enjoyment and fulfilment and you are definitely more likely to do it if you’ve made a commitment to someone else.
Taking time out to exercise is not selfish, it is in fact the opposite as it makes us better partners, parents, friends and relatives. Exercise increases positive mood, happiness, self-esteem, productivity, creativity, efficiency and improved self-perception. Regular physical activity also makes us less prone to illness, assists us in having healthy sleep patterns, reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as decreasing stress and irritability.
So it makes us better people for everyone in our lives including ourselves!
5. Can you afford it long-term?
Is your chosen activity realistic in terms of what you can manage financially and the pressure it might put on your body? There’s no point joining a fancy gym when they are doing a cheap intro offer if you can’t afford to keep going once the offer ends. There’s also no point starting out doing an activity which risks aggravating existing injuries.
Choose something which is kind to your body and sustainable financially long term.
Bonus tip to find an exercise you love for life!
Psychologist and movement expert Kelly McGonigal discusses how it takes approximately six weeks for the brain to become hooked on the feel good chemicals we get from exercise. So once you have been through these five questions it’s it’s important to try to stick at the activity for this long to see if it is really working for you!
If you’d like more indepth help to find your chosen activity you will do for life and feel your best self then contact me.
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