For a better workout, trick your brain
By Connie Chang
We all know exercise is good for us, but its benefits don’t always motivate us to set an alarm and lace up our running shoes. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 75% of Americans don’t meet the recommended guidelines for aerobic and strengthening exercise.
Many experts say the key to better and more regular workouts is not in the body, but in the mind. As anyone deciding between a Netflix binge and an evening run can understand, the body may be willing but the spirit occasionally needs a kick start.
However, there are a few tools that can trick our reluctant brains into finding the motivation to head back to the gym or set out on that bike trail.
Game it up
The brain loves a game, especially if it’s hard to predict or offers intermittent rewards, said Daya Grant, a neuroscientist and a mental performance coach in Los Angeles. Use that to your advantage.
For example, Milo Bryant, a performance coach in San Diego, uses an exercise grab bag for his group classes. “They’ll draw an exercise from one bag and a rep count from the other and whatever comes up, that’s what they do,” he said.
Apps such as Zombies, Run! — a cross between a fitness tracker and an episode of “The Last of Us” — take this to a new level. Like most running apps, it allows you to track your route and pace. The twist is how it pipes “missions” through your headphones as you run, directing you to sprint to avoid a zombie or to pick up supplies to build a virtual shelter.
The app Rouvy connects to a smart trainer, which converts your regular bike into a stationary one, for a virtual ride through different city streets around the world. It can even tweak your bike’s resistance as you encounter dips and hills. Pam Moore, a cycling instructor in Boulder, Colorado, said she once biked through Beverly Hills with a friend in Portland, Oregon, without leaving home.
“Although she was ahead of me, we could still ride together,” Moore said.
Tailor it to fit
Our brain also loves things that seem tailored for us. In a recent study, athletes who believed they had received a customized workout plan outperformed those who thought they were following a generic one.
Personal trainers are a natural way to make use of this perception. Or you can use an app such as Stronger by the Day, in which trainers take your fitness stats (the heaviest load you can lift, for example) and produce a strength-training program adapted for you.
“I’m obsessed with it,” Moore said. “By simply showing up and doing what it said, I’ve gotten so much stronger.”
According to Panteleimon Ekkekakis, an exercise psychologist at Michigan State University, we tend to remember experiences by how we feel at the end of them. That’s why he suggests “flipping the order of exercise — doing the hardest part early on after a good warm-up and gradually reducing the intensity — so you leave the session with the best possible memory.” This reverse-slope approach not only increases enjoyment just after a workout but improves how we perceive exercise up to a week later.
Work like a (Pavlovian) dog
Habits can become hard-wired into the brain. So, hitch your fitness to an “anchor habit,” something you already do every day, said Ben Reale, a personal trainer in Atlanta. If you drop off your children at school at 8 a.m., for example, be in the weight room by 8:15 a.m.
“Like the Pavlovian response, when we stack these habits together consistently over several weeks, we take the decision point, the willpower, out of the equation,” Reale said.
More reluctant exercisers might need a little something extra. Try pairing your workout with an activity you love, such as catching up on the latest season of “The Bachelor.” This “temptation bundling” is amplified if you only do the desired activity when you’re exercising, said Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“So you’re only indulging in your lowbrow TV or listening to your vampire novels at the gym,” Milkman said.
Make an emotional commitment
The most effective psychological trick to building an exercise habit might also be the simplest: Sign up for something — whether it’s a 5K in three months, a tennis tournament in a year or a father-daughter dance next spring. “When we’re training for something, it gives every workout purpose,” Bryant said. Set up smaller goals along the way, making sure they’re challenging but achievable.
Above all, figure out what works best for you — keeping in mind what that means may change. Exercise is more sustainable if we have an emotional connection to it.
“It’s why some people run marathons for causes or dedicate each mile to a specific person,” Grant said.