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Motivation to Exercise: Myths Debunked

Originally posted on March 18, 2011

It was my junior year of college and I was lacing up my sneakers for the third day that week and dreading what was next- dragging myself around the field in a heroic attempt to become a runner (okay, jogger). Each day was harder than the last, each lap less pleasant. How quickly my New Year’s resolution was turning into dread and my willpower becoming a multitude of excuses.

As I labored along, I could see a shadow in my periphery. It quickly became an Olympic- looking figure gliding effortlessly along. He introduced himself as Paul. Paul was on the track team and he was doing a recovery run, his second workout of the day.

I was trying to act nonchalant, but breathing so hard I could barely answer the questions he asked. I managed to gasp “yes” when he asked if we could meet again the next day. It was hard to imagine as I stood breathless, red-faced, and sweaty, that in just a few months I would be hooked on exercise.

I only dated Paul for three months, but I am forever grateful for what he gave me – the habit of exercise. Even though our relationship was short-lived, from that time forward, I was hooked on running. Just knowing you should exercise, (and there are a million reasons why), does not make it happen. But turning something into a habit is exactly what makes it happen. Like brushing your teeth – do you ever forget to brush before you leave the house? Is it an effort to get dressed? Nope, you always leave for work or school dressed in something.

Because these pathways in your brain are so established, brushing your teeth, and dressing, are just second nature. And because they are second nature, it doesn’t take willpower or brain power to make them happen. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor lays out all the research on developing good habits, based on studies in the field of positive psychology.

If you don’t have “Paul” in your life to help you develop a good routine, consider these strategies so healthy habits become second nature.  It’s not about self-discipline,; it’s about setting yourself up for success. Use these tips and you will end up heading to Pilates at Alta or to the gym before you even realize what’s happening.

Eliminate Choice
Have an action plan in place so that in the moment, you don’t waiver because you have to decide:

  • Which exercise clothes to wear???
  • Cardio day or weight lifting?
  • Exercise before or after work???
  • At the gym or outdoors??

Having to make a multitude of last minute decisions is a sure fire way to deplete your willpower and make it likely that you will grab the remote and end up on the couch.

Plan ahead

  • Schedule an appointment at Pilates.
  • Commit to meeting a friend for a hike.
  • Fill your water bottle, lay out the exercise clothes and set the alarm before you go to bed.
  • Put it in your weekly planner and make it a ritual.

Willpower is finite and the more you use it, the less you have. It’s just like dipping into a bucket of water; soon the bucket is empty and your willpower is gone. However, if you make all those little decisions in advance, exercise can become the path of least resistance.

The key to creating good habits is ritual, or repeated practice, until your brain has an easily established neural pathway. So if all else fails, as Achor says, just sleep in your gym clothes…

Make exercise the path of least resistance.


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