Exercise can hurt, particularly if you’ve been out of action for a while. While gritting your teeth and repeating the mantra ‘no pain, no gain’ might get you so far, using your big human cerebrum might just get you the rest of the way.
Think. To form meaningful and lasting change, we have to begin with thinking about ‘why?’ Without a ‘why’, who would get out of bed at 5am to do a trail run? Or deal with freezing water to complete a dawn ocean swim? Then set your ‘what.’ When our health goals are driven by our values, they are more likely to stick, and manifest in habits. Whether exercising for aesthetics, connection, vitality, or confidence building, there is no right or wrong in this setting, but if the purpose of your renewed commitment to your health is made concrete and explicit then it will help you set clear goals and remind you to persist when the going gets tough.
Cues, triggers, and reminders are integral to forming new behaviours. Every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” which is a three-part process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behaviour unfold. There are a large number of apps, gadgets, and smart garments that can aid in your newfound motivation for exercise by doing just that. Technology can remind you to exercise, can motivate you by showing and celebrating progress, and can also help you in tracking your nutritional intake.
Life is life, and so there will be days when you have to work late, or the kids are sick, and your scheduled exercise plans might not come to fruition. That’s okay. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Think flexibly. If we’re too rigid, or too black and white in our thinking, one missed session might lead to you catastrophising then avoiding a whole week, or month of activity. Whereas if you take it in your stride and make up the session at a later stage, your habits will continue to improve. Try and see your increased activity in terms of weekly and monthly averages, rather than living and dying by your daily calorie burn.
As mentioned before, rewards are integral in habit formation. The brain is always changing, and for new behaviours to develop, new neural pathways need to be strengthened. Creating a feel-good feedback loop in the brain is vital to maintaining an exercise program. Humans are creatures of habit and for a behaviour to be repeated, there must be a reward associated with that behaviour. Exercise produces endorphins which are the ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brain, and so the short term rewards are usually self-evident. However to beef up the chances of exercise becoming a habit, reward yourself tangibly as well. Book a coffee date with a friend after your workout, or do some active wear shopping. Or if you’re short on time and money – the reward can be less tangible. Researchers in the US (Phillips et al. 2016) found that the experience of intrinsic exercise rewards (enjoyment; stress reduction) may come to function as a factor in exercise habits, and therefore of exercise maintenance. So – you can pat yourself on the back mentally for doing something positive for your physical and mental health, enjoy the reduced stress, and that can be reward enough.
Exercising with friends, family, in a group, or with a trainer keeps us accountable and also brings a social enjoyment to exercise. The Kohler Effect, coined in 1920’s by social psychologist Otto Kohler, found that people will work harder in groups then when alone. This means that on the days where motivation is flailing, not wanting to let down someone else may just keep you on track towards your goals.