Ask anyone who has ever used exercise to make a drastic change to their life and they will likely tell you that consistency is the foundation to long-term success. Yes, we all know that behaviors like regular physical activity and proper nutrition are an essential component of long-term health, but in the hustle and bustle of modern life it can be difficult to make the necessary changes to adopt new lifestyle habits.
When it comes to exercise, focusing on the positive aspects of changing a behavior can make it a more pleasurable experience. The brain rewards pleasurable experiences by increasing levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Learning how to enjoy the process of exercise could elevate levels of these transmitters so that exercise becomes a positive and rewarding experience. The result is that the more you exercise, the better you will feel, which could lead to long-term behavior change and a healthier life.
Use the following six steps to help shift your focus so that you approach exercise as a means to a healthier life, which is essential for making it a daily habit.
- Treat yourself. Give yourself a small reward after completing a workout, doing all of the workouts you scheduled for yourself in a week or when you hit a goal. No, this does not mean breaking the bank or enjoying a meal with three times as many calories as you just burned off, but it does require a little planning to have the right reward ready. Give yourself permission to purchase a new piece of exercise clothing or a formal work outfit, enjoy a treatment at a spa or invest in new headphones for your workouts. Whatever it is, treating yourself to a reward activates the pleasure centers in your brain, which helps to establish a positive outlook toward the role that exercise plays in your life.
- Schedule your workouts. If you live by your appointment calendar, it may sometimes feel as though your schedule takes over your life and limits the amount of time available for a workout. However, if you take the time to plan your schedule and include time for exercise, it is more likely to become a regular habit. Take a few minutes over the weekend to plan when and where you will exercise and put it in your schedule. Then, if someone tries to make demands for your time, you can say, “Sorry, but I’ve already got plans.”
- Set a learning goal. There are two primary types of goals: outcome and learning. Outcome goals focus on the end result of performing a task, such as completing a marathon. Learning goals, however, focus on the process or steps required to achieve an outcome, such as learning how to exercise with a kettlebell. Focusing on the process of learning a new exercise technique or format could help release more dopamine, which is released in response to positive learning experiences, so that your brain associates exercise with pleasure.
- Change your mindset. Refocus your outcome goals to focus on quality of life rather than trying to achieve some media-defined appearance. Instead of focusing on using exercise to change how you look, think of exercise as a means for improving your health and enhancing your quality of life. If you shift your focus toward using exercise as a means for achieving and maintaining better health, you might be surprised at how motivated you will become to maintain a more consistent workout schedule.
- Develop a journaling practice. Use a journal to track your progress and record how you feel after you exercise. This doesn’t require lugging a journal with you to the gym for every workout—you could simply use the notes app on your phone to record a few brief statements about how the workout made you feel. Did you feel a sense of accomplishment? Were you able to do an exercise or complete a certain distance for the first time? Did you try a new class and enjoy the experience? Writing down the positive aspects of each exercise session and how it makes you feel could help you to shift your mindset so that you focus on the process, not necessarily the outcome.
- Find a workout buddy. Taking the steps to initiate behavior change by yourself can be tough, so having a friend along with you for the journey could help make the process a little easier. Enlisting a friend or family member to be a workout partner can give you someone to exercise with, which helps the time pass more quickly. It also makes you and your partner accountable to each other, which means you’re less likely to skip your workout if you know someone is counting on you. If you and a workout partner commit to exercising together, chances are greater that you will enjoy the experience, which is essential for establishing a long-term habit.
Taking these steps to focus on the positive aspects of working out could help change your perception of the benefits of exercise so that it becomes easier to make it a consistent habit. It is only when exercise becomes a regular habit that you will experience lasting and long-term results from your efforts.