Have you ever planned a new exercise schedule with great enthusiasm only to see your commitment fade? Would you like to exercise more consistently, but feel you just don't have the willpower? If so, there’s a perfectly good reason for that. You've turned exercise into a chore.
Why do you exercise?
Take a moment to think of all the reasons you exercise. If you're like most people, you are probably exercising for all the wrong reasons.
Maybe you are exercising to lose weight or live a longer healthier life? Perhaps you want to lower your cholesterol or reduce your risk of chronic disease. Maybe, you'd like to be happier with how your body looks, or you know exercise is an important contributor to your wellbeing and mental health. These may all be great benefits of exercise, but research shows they're the wrong reasons to exercise.
The truth is, none of these reasons are likely to motivate you over the long term. They aren't enough to get you out of bed, off the couch, away from your work, or off your phone, even if they will benefit you in the long term.
Our lives are filled with pleasant distractions. The newest season was released today. It's girls night. Your phone just pinged. Your favourite team is on. A package just arrived. It's Friday and you're craving take-out.
The Dopamine Hit.
Did you notice that just thinking of some of those things give you a twinge of anticipation or excitement? There's a good reason for that. When something excites you, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in your brain.
Activities you find pleasurable; sex, eating your favourite food, gambling, receiving a compliment, or listening to your favourite song can all cause the release of dopamine. As a result you're likely to seek out these experiences more frequently. A flood of dopamine can produce temporary feelings of euphoria.
Dopamine is also responsible for feelings of alertness, focus, motivation, and is key to learning, planning, and productivity. When you experience a pleasurable experience often enough, just thinking about it can cause a release of dopamine.
Many online services today from Facebook and Youtube to Netflix are designed to trigger that dopamine pathway with their built in scrolling features or dramatic episode endings that heighten your anticipation and trigger another hit.
With so many activities occupying your attention, an exercise routine based on vague, abstract or distant goals, is doomed to fail.
The Wrong Reasons to Exercise
You are wired for immediate gratification over long-term goals.
We like to believe we can can plan or talk ourselves into better habits. But the reality is people are motivated to make choices and do what feels good, now.
So when you tell yourself that you are going to the gym to lose weight or some other long term goal, exercise has to compete with everything else that seems easier, more immediately rewarding or urgent. Without clear goals based on the right reasons, you're likely to choose the easiest path to that pleasurable dopamine hit; so you watch tv, play a video game, have a beer, scroll through social media or have a snack.
When inevitably you give in to an emotional trigger and choose something more immediately satisfying over your commitment to exercise, you get disappointed with yourself. You tell yourself you lack willpower. You're a procrastinator. You're not committed. There's something wrong with you. Or, you tell yourself exercise just isn't for you.
This is what movement researcher Michelle Segar calls the vicious cycle of failure. If this sounds like you, it's time to rethink the reasons you exercise.
The Right Reason to Exercise
When was the last time you truly enjoyed exercise? Were you outside for a walk, or bike ride? Were you doing gardening or yard work? Were you dancing, playing a sport or swimming in the ocean? Were you working out or in a crossfit class? Whatever you were doing, how did you feel?
More importantly, how did you feel afterwards?
Research shows that just a few minutes of exercise can boost our mood. Exercise promotes a range of chemical reactions in your body that have significant mental health benefits. It also results in the release of a flood of neurotransmitters that impact the entire nervous system.
The most commonly known neurotransmitters related to exercise are endorphins. But others such as endocannabinoids, and dopamine also play an important role when you start moving.
Endorphins help block pain and increase sensations of pleasure. Endocannabinoids are calming and produce the feelings often referred to as "runners high." Exercise also increases oxygen supply to the brain helping with memory, flexible thinking, self control, along with a rush of dopamine bringing all its benefits.
Just ten to fifteen minutes of exercise can leave you feeling more energized and focused for several hours. Forty-five minutes of vigorous activity will have you feeling better all day and sleeping better at night.
You’ll find you're more patient with your kids, more confident and outgoing with colleagues and clients and more attentive to your partner and your skin will glow.
When you exercise with the goal of having more energy and feeling better you turn exercise from a chore into a gift.
Exercise Changes Your Brain
For those suffering from mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medications. Behavioural Activation Therapy, which focuses on getting people more active by doing things that make them feel better, like doing meaningful tasks, connecting with others, being more physically active and getting involved in their community has been shown to be as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for depression.
It turns out, mental health problems like anxiety and depression may have as much to do with how we think, as what we do (or don't do) in our daily lives.
When you exercise for the right reasons, you start to make changes to your brain. With every movement, your brain begins to reorganize itself. With each day your body gains a greater capacity for movement, and your mind becomes more and more accustomed to feeling positive emotions.
As you get used to exercising and feeling better each day, you'll look forward to a chance to move, and that feel good rush of dopamine and endorphins will reinforce your new habit.
By paying attention to the immediate benefits of exercise, you'll turn exercise from a chore into a gift. Do it to feel happier, have more energy, have less pain and to feel more confident, relaxed and focused. By doing so, you'll be far more likely to be healthier and achieve your long term goals.
This week, start small and set safe, attainable goals for yourself. Make it pleasurable and resist going too far too fast. You should feel good afterwards.
Choose activities you enjoy, with people you enjoy, and do what you look forward to. While exercising, focus on how good it feels to move. Then enjoy how good you feel afterwards.
Don't wait until you're in the mood. Move and notice how good you feel.
Take good care,
Your wellbeing matters. Take five minutes to learn if you are suffering, surviving or thriving in five essential areas of life and what you can do to improve your wellbeing. Try it now.
About the Author:
Derrick McEachern is a Registered Counselling Therapist (RCT) in Nova Scotia, and a Canadian Certified Counsellor. He specializes in providing mindfulness-based and emotionally focused therapy. He offers workshops and webinars and consults with businesses on ways to improve employee wellbeing and mental health.