When it comes to health behaviors, motivation seems hard because we often take the path of most resistance, particularly when it comes to exercise. Too many mistakenly believe that exercise must be awful to be effective, which is often enough to stop them before they even get started.
Yet rarely has anyone ever regretted exercising or even just going for a brisk walk.
Here is a simple technique that you can use to capture the shift in mood and energy level that your next workout has provided for you. If you use this for a few workouts in a row you can, in effect, teach your brain to get the immediate “reward” of exercise or physical activity.
Here’s how to do it:
- Use the “Voice Memos” app on your smartphone.
- Immediately before exercising, record a very short statement describing how you feel physically, mentally and/or emotionally.
- Immediately after exercise, repeat step 2.
- Playback the recording from steps 2 and 3 right after each other.
You will notice the effect immediately from both the words you use and the tone and energy or enthusiasm in your voice.
A few notes:
- If you do not use a smartphone, write down the before-and-after statements on a sticky note or a calendar. This approach misses the opportunity to hear your own tone of voice, but it can still be effective.
- This works even if you decide to use the same words in both statements. I once had a client who was skeptical of this technique and claimed that using more positive words by itself would create the shift in tone. I told him to use “I feel sluggish” (his “before” statement) as his after statement, too. He was surprised that his tone sounded so much more energetic and positive in the “after” utterance.
Take note of what effect this action has, no matter how small. Too often, people exercise because they “should” and, as a result, it strips away much of the perceived benefit from the positive behavior because the context of a chore or obligation removes much of the enjoyment around it. This technique changes that.
Why This Works
A noticeable shift in mood becomes the motivator. Once you’ve done this a few times and have listened to the recordings, you have essentially taught your brain to chase the reward of feeling better after exercise or any physical activity. You have created a behavioral loop in which you have taught your brain how to enhance mood and derive a powerful and positive effect from a single exercise effort.
A single action that leaves you feeling better emotionally or mentally expands possibilities and generates hope. It also helps you reframe exercise and change it from a motivational challenge to a mood-transforming opportunity.
It’s worth noting that this strategy can be employed and work equally well when going for a walk or any other form of physical activity. Incidental physical activity may not be as intense as exercise and, in general, does not feel as daunting or challenging as exercise to many people. Yet, it can still provide an opportunity to reframe all physical activity (including exercise) in a more positive way using the strategy introduced here.
Choose the Intensity You Prefer
If you are just getting started or currently dislike exercise and do it grudgingly, don’t worry too much about how hard you exercise. One study found that people were in a better mood when they picked their own intensity level instead of using a prescribed moderate-effort workout. Some people love high-intensity exercise, while others prefer low or moderate exercise intensities. When getting started with exercise or becoming more physically active, it is better to use an intensity you find most agreeable as the ensuing consistent participation will likely enhance not just your capacity for, but your willingness to participate in, exercise at varied intensity levels. You can end up doing all intensities if you exercise consistently enough to build confidence and derive the health and fitness benefits of your initially preferred intensity.
Choose your own intensity—not the one that you “should” do.