How to Think Like a Fit Person
Why: Let us explain. The most frequent exercisers are those who don't really decide to exercise—they do it automatically, according to a 2015 study in Health Psychology. Sounds a little Yeah...right, right? Work out! Don't think about it! But you can actually make it happen. The automatic exercisers were triggered by cues before each exercise session, ones that became so strongly associated with working out that over time, people stopped having to make the decision, says lead study author Alison Phillips, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University. You can create your own cues that lead to the same results. Say you decide to start going to the gym on your way home from work—at first it'll be hard and you'll have to use some mental discipline to keep doing it, but eventually the practice becomes automatic, and leaving your desk at 5 o'clock becomes your subconscious signal to go exercise.
Why: Having a little skin in the game keeps you on track. People who were told that they'd lose $1.40 every time they fell short of a daily 7,000-step goal were more likely to meet the goal than those who earned the same amount of money every time they hit 7,000 steps, found a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine. "It's an example of loss aversion," explains lead study author Mitesh Patel, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine and health care management in the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "We feel more pain from a loss than we feel happiness from a gain, so we're more motivated to do what we have to do to avoid losses." Apps like Pact let you pick how much money you'll be out if you don't reach your stated goal (the money you lose is given to other app users who do meet their goals—nothing like a little rivalry to add fuel your workout fire).
Why: Not even the most die-hard exercisers relish getting up at 5 a.m. to run outside when it's 15 degrees. So they call in the big guns: buddies. Studies have shown that the encouragement of a like-minded exerciser (or a bunch of them) can keep us working out over the long term. What's more, the effect tends to last longer than the group does—people in studies still kept up their exercise routines long after the training group or class had disbanded. Your buddies don't have to be people you physically meet up with, either. Being placed into online groups where members were updated when others, say, signed up for a yoga class, was more motivating than getting encouraging messages and videos from researchers, found a 2015 study in Preventive Medicine Reports.
Why: Despite the fact that sticking to an exercise routine has benefits for your long-term health that's not going to get you into the gym day after day. Research from Michelle Segar, PhD, a behavioral sustainability expert at the University of Michigan, found that the thing that keeps people moving is an immediate benefit: an endorphin-fueled YAWP! or a post-yoga reassurance that everything's gonna be all right. People value healthy living—in theory, says Segar, but when she has followed up with exercisers over time, those who felt they got noticeable perks (like stress relief) from their workouts exercised 20 percent more than those who said that their goal was to stay healthy, and 32 percent more than those who said they worked out to lose weight.
Why: Obviously, when you like something, you do it more and with more gusto, including exercise, be it cardio belly dancing or karate. You also free yourself from the drag on your willpower that comes from doing something you hate, explains Segar. You don't have to motivate yourself to wake up at 6 a.m., get yourself to the gym and pound away on the treadmill while scowling at yourself in the mirror. If you're doing something you think is fun (or doing it with fun people), you just have to motivate yourself to wake up at 6 a.m., and the rest will take care of itself. "Getting an immediate positive reward from exercise, like enjoyment or revitalization, is among the top predictors of sticking with it over the long term," Segar says. Consider this permission to be an exercise hedonist.
Why: Ideally, there'd be an extra hour or two each day—or at least 300 minutes a week—designated just for exercise. But there are weeks, or months, or life phases in which it is impossible to find a free hour to devote to working out. Exercising sporadically throughout the day is not only convenient, it's also been shown to aid in weight loss (especially for older women) and improve circulation. Splitting up an 30-minute exercise routine into three shorter increments can be even more effective at controlling blood pressure than doing the workout all at once, found Glenn Gaesser, a professor and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University.
Why: Segar says that one of the biggest reasons many of her female clients have trouble sticking to an exercise routine is that they feel guilty making time for it. She recommends the oxygen mask approach to working out: Before we can take care of others, we need to take care of ourselves. And when we do that, we'll not only be less likely to throw our back out while, say, picking up shoes from the middle of the living room floor, but also less likely to snap at the person who left them there.