Question: If the exercise habit is so important, why is it so hard to come by?
Answer: First, let’s recognize just how important it is. Exercise is a panacea, the miracle medicine. Almost everything gets better! Low mood, high anxiety, anger, sleep, immunity, energy, concentration and productivity. Self-image, weight, appearance and confidence. Sex, strength, longevity and range of activities…
That’s sixteen things I can list right off the bat. If this stuff was sold in a bottle, we’d pay a skinny arm and a leg for it!
Second, what if you revive your relationship, resolve your depression and cure your phobia…while meanwhile inviting an early and uncomfortable demise? How successful is that?
No health practitioner anywhere will discourage exercise, as long as it’s the right form and intensity for you.
So why aren’t we all doing it?
Mainly because we’re creatures of reinforcement: we do what is rewarding and avoid what is unpleasant. The problem here is that the rewards for exercise are all delayed, while the payoff for passivity happens right here, right now. The consequences for being sedate and inert are grave, but they come later.
We can tell ourselves over and over that the delayed gratification is better, and often this works. It works for those fit and active people you see around you, and it works for anyone who goes through school, raises children and so on. But by and large, immediate reward trumps delayed reward. This is a powerful effect and it is hard to overcome.
Then there is television and the Internet. They employ genius minds designing ways to keep us hooked in and it’s not hard. The allure of the screen, is powerful.
Television creates the illusion of being highly rewarding. We may think we’re relaxing, getting positive stimulation or whatever, but how often do you turn it off and feel better for what you’ve just watched? Can you imagine nearing the end of your life and contentedly thinking on how grateful you are for the programs you saw? Or wishing you’d watched more? Don’t get me wrong – it is plenty of fun. But so is candy.
But while the reward for TV may be insubstantial, it’s quick, vivid and effortless. Again, immediate reinforcement generally beats the pants off delayed gratification – unless we are strategic and conscientiously purposeful.
Another reason it is hard to exercise is that we’re creatures of patterns and familiarity. A body at rest stays at rest, and breaking the inertia takes much more energy than sustaining momentum. If you think about it, why would anyone want to leave a comfort zone?
You do want to exercise, or increase what you going? Contemplating it? Tired of getting it going only to have it drop off? Here are a few extra ways to help yourself:
Watch a program, not the television. Decide in advance what is really worth watching; don’t turn on the tube to see what it has to offer.
Plan before you start. Get everything set up – clothes, schedule, support from others. Anticipate any barriers and scheme around them in advance. Start drinking extra water. You can mark each session in your calendar and program your program your phone to send reminders.
Watch. Watch very intently. Watch for any and all the tiny rewards. Rewards are the key to continuity, but you aren’t conditioned to catch them. You’re conditioned to make note of what a pain in the butt it is, and of all the nice restful things you could be doing instead. You’re also conditioned to look for weight-loss, washboard abs and the “positive addiction”, all of which come much later if at all.
Any improvement in sleep, focus, pride, satisfaction, energy, enjoyment of the activity itself…these things may be very elusive and you must not let them slink away. You’re training yourself to find the payoffs that are available there for you to enjoy. They will grow bigger in time, in part because you’re gaining the strength to generate more, and in part because you’re more alert to them. With time, some elements which feel negative now, like sweating and huffing, solitude and ritual, may actually become positive later.
Accomplished athletes do not have it any easier than you do. They have simply aligned the reinforcers.
Finally exercise every darn day. I did not advise this in the past. I used to advise starting with however many days are realistic, and that approach may be what would work for you. But it doesn’t allow you to develop a hard-and-fast routine. Remember learning to brush your teeth? Did you learn by brushing when it felt right? And how disciplined are you with this dull chore now? Where there is no decision-making, there is no waffling and where there is no waffling you won’t…pancake. So do start small – but only in terms of the duration and the intensity of the exercise, which you’ll expand upon later. The success with frequency starts on day 2.
For more, see Self-Motivating When Stuck.