The Key To Sticking With An Exercise Program

The Key To Sticking With An Exercise Program

The key to sticking with an exercise program is actually enjoying it, new research shows.

If exercise is intrinsically rewarding—it makes you feel good or reduces stress—people will respond automatically to a cue—like a morning alarm—and not have to convince themselves to work out.

In other words, they’ll want to exercise.

“People are more likely to stick with exercise if they don’t have to deliberate about whether or not to do it.”

“If someone doesn’t like to exercise, it’s always going to take convincing,” says Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “People are more likely to stick with exercise if they don’t have to deliberate about whether or not to do it.”

Intrinsic reward is specific to each individual. Phillips says it could be physiological, such as from endorphins or serotonin, or from spending time with a friend while working out. It’s important to note that intrinsic reward takes time and experience to develop—not everyone loves exercising when they first start, Phillips says.

Ultimately, the reward must make it so that you prefer exercising to not exercising in response to your cue. If you do not feel better or enjoy exercising, you’re going to do something else when forced to make a decision, Phillips says.

Exercise is a complex behavior that requires effort, which is why it’s not as easy to develop as other simple habits, such as brushing your teeth. And for that reason, Phillips says the reward must come directly from the activity. If you’re exercising to lose weight or for other extrinsic reasons, you’ll still have to make a decision when you encounter your cue.

How to make exercise a habit

Phillips and her colleagues conducted two separate studies to analyze activity levels for initiators or people just starting to work out, and maintainers or those who had been exercising regularly for at least three months. In the first study, participants reported the duration and intensity of exercise each week. Accelerometers were used in the second study to track activity.

The role of intrinsic motivation was different for each group.

If initiators enjoyed exercising, they were more likely to continue, but it was still an intentional process, Phillips says. However, maintainers were at a point in which they may have developed a habit and the intrinsic reward helped maintain that habit in response to a cue. The results are published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology.


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Phillips says the data support the role of intrinsic reward in maintaining exercise as a long-term habit. She stresses that exercising for external reasons, such as weight loss, are legitimate reasons to start and maintain exercising. But even if you achieve that reward, it’s not enough to make exercise an automatic behavior, Phillips says.

If you don’t see the results you want or your external goals change, you’ll likely quit, which is why habit formation is essential to creating life-long change.

“If exercise is not habit, then it’s effortful and takes resources from other things you might also want to be doing. That’s why people give it up,” Phillips says.

Source: Iowa State University

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