If you are in an exercise rut or not exercising at all, you are probably associating exercise with a “have to” rather than a “want to.” If you’re not having fun and exercise feels more like a punishment than a reward, you will not keep doing it. The way your brain is wired, it remembers situations that feel punishing and avoids them. This means that if exercise feels like a chore, your brain will make it harder and harder for you to engage in that activity. You will notice your motivation continue to decrease.
We all know that a sedentary life brings countless health problems. Most people agree that exercise has extreme health benefits: strength and muscle maintenance, slows down the aging process, weight management, mood regulation, skin health, balanced hormones, increases energy, promotes sound sleep, andimproves circulation. Exercise also regulates your brain chemistry, including the neurotransmitter serotonin, a key chemical involved in depression and anxiety.
Since you know exercise is beneficial to your overall health and well-being, how about making it rewarding instead of punishing? Follow the 5 Steps below to get out of the rut and feel vibrant and energized moving your body again!
STEP 1: Identify where exercise could be enjoyable.
What, realistically, would be a step toward enjoyable exercise that you can take this week? Before you respond with, “No exercise is enjoyable,” really open your mind here. Most, if not all of us enjoy moving our bodies in a way that feels good. What way of moving your body feels pleasurable to you? Perhaps you miss going on a morning walk and listening to the birds. Maybe you enjoy the feel of the water when you go swimming. Perhaps you feel powerful lifting weights. If exercise is new to you, think about environments you enjoy being in and how you might inject just a little bit of movement. Perhaps you enjoy that first big stretch before getting out of bed in the morning? No movement is too small. For Step 1, just start identifying where or when you enjoy moving your body. Put judgments aside and think about what feels good in your bones.
STEP 2: Figure out a small and realistic next step based on where you are right now.
Be honest with yourself. If you take advanced yoga classes three times per week, lift weights, and hike regularly, your next step will look very different than if you fancy yourself a couch potato and haven’t exercised in years. It doesn’t matter where you start or how small your first step seems to be. I once had a client who was sedentary, and years ago, she used to love to walk outdoors in her neighborhood. Her first steps toward exercise involved finding and then cleaning her walking shoes. These steps took a couple of weeks, and then she was off and walking. I viewed this as a tremendous success because she had been trying to bully herself into walking for years, with no success. By putting judgments aside (she initially thought these steps were too “small” and “silly”), she was moving regularly, and feeling energized and motivated in a matter of a few weeks.
STEP 3: Take the first step!
This may seem obvious, but many people can get stuck in the planning stages. Planning exercise is not exercise. Once you have identified a first do-able step, take it! Go for it! HINT: If time goes by and you are not taking that first step, break it down further into much smaller steps until you can follow through and take one.
STEP 4: REINFORCE!
There is a reason this step is in all CAPS. I cannot emphasize enough the power of reinforcement. If you respond to the step you have taken by telling yourself it is “too small” or “not enough,” you are punishing yourself for the effort you just put forth and can look forward to another exercise slump and watch your activity level wane. In contrast, reinforcingyourself for doing it, giving yourself positive feedback and being proud of what you are accomplishing is how you can keep your momentum, or build it. (Scroll to the bottom of this article for more specifics on reinforcement and how to do it.)
STEP 5: Keep taking this same step and reinforce it until it becomes easy.
Resist the urge to take on more until you have mastered this step. If you do, you risk becoming overwhelmed and may give up before you’ve reached your exercise goals. Keep taking this step until it no longer feels like a challenge but feels rather easy to do. Once mastered, it is time to increase the difficulty and, you guessed it, reinforce. (Expert tip: Once the step has become easy, reinforce it only sometimes before tapering off the reinforcement altogether. This is called intermittent reinforcement, which is the most effective way to lock in a behavior and make it permanent.)
These steps still apply even if you have an active lifestyle. Are you feeling stalled because you have plateaued, or have been doing the same workout so long that it is easy or boring now? Then make it a little harder, step it up, and move towards a more challenging work out using the five steps above. Immediately jumping ahead to something that is very challenging to you right away can only work if you accept that the road to a new habit or skill is not a straight line. For more on that, visit the earlier article on how change really happens:REINFORCEMENT is the most effective way to achieve lasting change.
Some ideas for reinforcement:
DEFINITION: A REINFORCER is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.
- TIMING counts!
- Make sure to reinforce your progress as soon as you can after engaging in the desired behavior. (e.g., You just put on your shoes to go for a short walk to increase fitness. REINFORCE yourself right then. “Nice!” “I did it!” Don’t wait. REINFORCE immediately!)
- Remember, the brain is making connections. The most powerful connections are made when the behavior and reinforcer happen close together in time. You can do it!
- Find REINFORCERS that work.
Make a note of the REINFORCERS you want to try from the list below or use the list to help you brainstorm some of your own reinforcers.
- Congratulate yourself (“Good job!” “You did it!”).
- Make and enjoy your favorite flavor of tea.
- Write a smiley face on your list next to the task you accomplished.
- Stop and notice sensations of pride in your body.
- Enjoy a small bit of nourishing food you enjoy and really taste it (e.g., a sip of fresh orange juice, a small piece of chocolate).
- Look in the mirror and say, “I’m really proud of you.” Mean it and take it in. Feel the effects.
- Choose an activity you enjoy to reward yourself (e.g., coloring, a favorite TV program, listening to a favorite song, play with Play-Doh).
- Dance around the room.
- Pat yourself on the back or give yourself a hug and feel the effects.
- Gently rub the back of your hand while acknowledging your efforts.
- Keep joyful pictures on your phone and take a moment to look at them and enjoy.
The key, no matter how many good tunes are on your iPod or what new sport you’re trying, is that you reinforce yourself- give yourself credit for all the work you do, even and especially when you are moving towards your goals but have not hit them yet.
For professional help with changing habits and creating a thriving life in alignment with your values, contact Dr. Bando today.