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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Accountability is the key to a sustainable workout habit

Amy Gruenhut, left, trains with Nick Arrington in Central Park in New York, March 14, 2024. After a debilitating disease, Gruenhut was unable to walk, eat or speak. Today she runs marathons. Among other things, she credits her group of running buddies. (Peter Garritano/The New York Times)

By Danielle Friedman

Two years ago, Amy Gruenhut developed a near-fatal brain infection that put her into a coma for nearly two weeks. Since then, she has gone from learning how to eat, speak and walk again to running four marathons.

Gruenhut had been a casual runner before the coma, but after she left the hospital, returning to the jogging paths of Central Park felt like a return to life itself.

Making progress required patience and willpower that seemed almost superhuman. But, like everyone, Gruenhut sometimes struggled to get out of bed and lace up her sneakers. For those moments, she amassed a group of workout buddies to encourage her to get moving.

“I didn’t want to stand them up,” Gruenhut, 44, said, adding, “They were making that commitment to me as well.”

Regardless of how inspired people are to achieve their health and fitness goals, many face barriers to putting in the time, reps or steps. But experts say the difference between quitting and not quitting often comes down to having a person, group, app or other outside force that nudges you to keep going.

Most accountability tricks aren’t universal: One person might find it motivating to share run times on the fitness app Strava; another might find it deeply stressful. The key is to shop around until you find a strategy that works for you.

Find a more committed buddy …

Making plans to exercise with any friend increases your chances of working out. But some experts say we benefit most from teaming up with one who’s more enthusiastic about working out than we are.

A new study on gym motivation, soon to be published in the journal Management Science, found that participants who struggled to work out saw significant improvement when they buddied up with a regular gym-goer, said Rachel Gershon, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley.

… or one who needs an extra push.

If you’re the more dedicated workout buddy, you can benefit from serving as a motivator and teacher for a less-experienced friend, said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.

When you give advice, you’re not only making yourself accountable to the other person, you’re also reinforcing your own commitment by hearing yourself articulate how or why you do something, she said.

Keep mostly mum about your races.

Deciding to train for a race or another athletic event can provide both structure and accountability, experts said. But you are probably best off keeping your plans relatively private.

Sharing a lofty goal widely — on social media, for example — can backfire because it can cause you to “feel like you already achieved it,” said Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University. Research has suggested that, for some people, talking about an upcoming goal can feel like a substitute for actually doing it: You get the same satisfaction without putting in the hard work.

Hold off on hyping your event until you’re close to the finish line, she said, both literally and figuratively.

Promise an instructor you’ll show up.

While paying a monthly gym membership propels some people to work out, it’s not enough for others: Only half of gym members go twice a week.

“If you don’t follow through, there is no real penalty,” said Dr. Kevin Volpp, the director of the Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, other than feeling like you’ve wasted money.

To create more accountability, he said, forge a relationship with an instructor or trainer and say you’ll show up for a class or workout session at a specific time. Social accountability — not wanting to seem like a flake — can be a powerful motivator.

Use paper clips to track progress.

If you respond well to visual cues, Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist in Denver, recommends displaying a paper-clip chain to track your workouts. Start with one clip, and every time you exercise, add a new one to the chain. Or make a rubber band ball.

When you’re feeling off, he said, these visual reminders “can help provide a little bit of that energy to get you started.”

Get paid.

If you need an extra incentive, sign up for an app that pays or rewards you for moving, said Heather Royer, a health economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

These apps track metrics such as minutes or miles through your phone or wearable fitness device, and offer discounts on products or even charitable donations in your name. They’re typically funded by corporate sponsors or commissions from partner brands.

Royer prefers Paceline, which offers gift cards and discounts for moving 150 minutes a week. Even though the payout itself is small — only around a dollar or two a week — it’s motivating for her.

“It’s enough that, come the end of the week, if I’m not yet at that goal, I’m doing workouts at 10 p.m.,” she said.

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