Fitness: five steps to motivate yourself

Man Doing Pushups at Step Aerobics Class

It’s often said that getting fit and staying healthy are mainly in the mind: they’re a matter of motivation. What’s less frequently mentioned is that the mind is a uniquely disobliging thing; it rarely does what you tell it, and often seems to do the opposite out of spite. To make things worse, we seek motivation from the wrong people: personal trainers, fitness teachers and celebrity gurus. These people are already addicted to endorphins. What do they know of life as a sofa-based curmudgeon who wants (and, at the same time, doesn’t want) to change? The supreme example of a motivation technique that sounds good, but rarely works, is promising yourself a reward. Plenty of studies show that this “extrinsic motivation” backfires: it increases the unpleasantness of exercise. As parenting expert Alfie Kohn said, “The more you reward people, the less interest they come to have in whatever they had to do to get the reward.” Bribe your kids to read and it will seem like a chore they’d never choose. Drag yourself to the gym with the promise of a doughnut, and you’re reinforcing a similar idea. The human brain requires more subtle manipulations. Try these five ways to motivate yourself.

1 Lower the stakes
Exercise feels important (let’s be blunt: it’s because you don’t want to die). But that leads to ambitious fitness goals, which lead in turn to avoidance – because they’re intimidating. You believe you need to wait until you’ve plenty of free time. Set tiny goals: whatever your current capacities – miles per week, lengths per swim – halve them, then work gradually upward from there. This new goal will seem laughable. But that’s good: laughable things can’t be intimidating.

2 Measure and stretch yourself
A key to building intrinsic motivation (the opposite of extrinsic motivation) is what the writer Dan Pink calls “mastery”. Choose exercise that enables a sense of progress, for example by developing a skill you currently lack, or reaching significant milestones of endurance or strength. That way, the reward will come from the activity itself, not as compensation for it.

3 Motivate yourself with loss, not gain If you must use extrinsic rewards, recent research suggests you’re better off threatening yourself with losing something you’ve already got, not gaining something new. So don’t promise yourself a cinema trip if you stick to your exercise plans this week; instead, buy the ticket first and give it to a friend or partner, asking them to rip it up if you fail.

4 Reset your mental boundaries
We’re comically susceptible to how we divide time in our minds. So you may find the prospect of (say) going to your spinning class more appealing if you define the “episode” of exercise as including the hot shower or the cappuccino at the end of it.

5 Don’t worry about ‘feeling’ motivated
The ultimate ninja motivational trick may be to abandon the attempt. Often, telling yourself you need motivation just adds an extra barrier: suddenly, you no longer merely need to lace up your trainers; you need to feel a certain way as well. (Psychologists have found that trying to force yourself into a positive frame of mind often makes things worse.) But actually, you don’t. After all, recalcitrant, irritated pessimists are allowed to go running, too.

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