How Happiness Science Can Help You Exercise Better

Most of us recognize the benefits of regular exercise: Less stress. More energy. Better sleep. Longer lives. And happiness. Regular exercise is one of the simplest and best things you can do to boost your happiness. 

And most of us know what we should be doing. Walking more. Yoga. Hitting the weight room. Signing up for that charity bike race your colleague is organizing.

Knowing the why and the how of getting and staying in shape are relatively easy compared to the starting and sticking to it. I’m guessing you’ve set some fitness goal for yourself in the last few years that you haven’t reached. I know I have. We all do.

So here’s what you’ve been missing. Three tips from the science of happiness and goal achievement that will help you adhere to your fitness goals once and for all.

Stick-to-It Tip #1: Enjoy It

The most important step you can take in turning regular exercise into a habit is to make it fun. Who wants to wake up at 5 a.m. for a grueling boot camp class with an instructor who might make you cry? If you do, great. If you don’t, then don’t even consider it. There are hundreds of ways to get exercise and some are more enjoyable for each of us than others. 

Finding the right activity, whether it’s ice skating, ultimate Frisbee, or merengue dancing, is just the start. Make your fitness routine more enjoyable by making it social. Taking along a friend for a walk can increase both the happiness you experience while exercising and the intensity and duration of your effort.

Also be sure to spend some time savoring the benefits exercise brings. If you’re able to get outside and do an activity in nature, take a moment to soak in the natural beauty around you. Pay attention to the ease with which your body moves and the invigoration you feel when you begin moving. And even when you’ve finished a workout hours ago, notice the changes in your energy throughout the rest of your day. Savoring and appreciating these small details will help keep you motivated to keep the habit up.

Stick-to-It Tip #2: Change the Goal

In a study by psychologists at UCLA, college students were brought into the research lab a week before an exam. One group of the students were asked to visualize the outcome of achieving a good grade on the exam. Another group visualized the process required to achieve the good outcome. In other words, they imagined themselves studying. The students who visualized the process of studying ended up studying more and performed better on the exam.

Fitness goals often involve outcomes. Lose 20 pounds. Run a 5K. Climb the stairs without gasping for breath. But other than setting a target to know whether or not we’ve succeeded, those goals don’t actually help us turn our desires into action.

Instead, be like one of the students who envisioned good study habits. Get clear on what process will enable you to achieve your outcome. Want to run a 5K? How many days a week will you train? How much or how far will you run each workout to build your endurance? What non-running activities are part of your plan? When and where will you do it all? Do some research if you need to and draw up a plan. Gauge your success not by how quickly you reach your outcome goal, but by how successfully you stick to your process. The process is always completely within your control.

Stick-to-It Tip #3: Make It Easy

Don’t be naïve. Expect that there are going to be hurdles in creating and adhering to an exercise routine. Some days you’re going to feel tired, lazy, overstressed, or frustrated about the mess your spouse left in kitchen last night. You might think that the people who succeed despite these obstacles do it through sheer willpower. You’re wrong.

In Walter Mischel’s well-known marshmallow experiments of the 1960’s and 70’s, kids were offered a choice. At any point, they could choose to eat the one delicious marshmallow in front of them. Or wait and they would be rewarded with two. The researchers left the children to struggle with the decision on their own. Some kids— those lowest in self-regulation—just grabbed the first marshmallow and went to town. Others waited, staring the marshmallow down for a few minutes but eventually gave in. The most self-regulated of the bunch didn’t just rely on their willpower. They changed the game. Some turned their chairs around so they wouldn’t be tempted. Others closed their eyes and kicked at the floor to distract themselves.

Imagine the adult analogy. You know you have a problem drinking more soda than you should. What’s the better strategy? Using willpower to stop yourself from grabbing a can of Coke every time you open the refrigerator? Or not buying any soda at the store in the first place? The most self-regulated among us do the latter, making choices that structure their environments in a way that makes the choices they want to make easier.

So rather than relying on willpower to trek across town to the gym every morning, find one that’s already along your route to work. When you’re planning for an early morning exercise class, lay out all your workout clothes, your gym bag, a bottle of water, snack, and your keys the night before. Planning on a walk as soon as you get home from work? Change outfits before you leave the office so that you’re ready to go as soon as you get there. By anticipating the feeling of doubt or hesitation you might have to follow through on your workout plan in the future, you can outsmart yourself and short circuit it in the present.

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