If you’ve started exercising but aren’t seeing or feeling the benefits straight away, it can be hard to stay motivated. Juliet Hodges, Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa, looks at some of the science behind motivation, and explains how you can stay motivated to see your exercise plans through.
It’s worth thinking about why you decided to start exercising in the first place, as this underlying motivation can influence how successful you are. Taking up exercise simply to become fitter is what is called an intrinsic goal: improvement and mastery of the behaviour itself continues to reinforce the motivation to work out. You are therefore more likely to succeed.
However, if you’ve decided to exercise to feel more physically attractive, your motivation is more likely to falter. This is an extrinsic goal: the outcome is not directly related to the exercise itself, so you’re less likely to find exercise rewarding as an activity. In addition, the weight loss someone achieves through exercise alone is typically modest, despite its other health benefits. This means you may be more likely to lose interest, as the results you’re after aren’t immediately obvious.
Regardless of why you started to exercise, try to set yourself fitness goals, or try different types of exercise to find something you enjoy. When you’re focused on jogging an extra kilometre (km) or beating your best time – rather than losing two pounds – you’re more likely to see progress.
The strategy behind your goal-setting is also important. Aiming to run 10km when you currently struggle to run for a bus is a lofty goal. But it could backfire and actually harm your fitness efforts. The key is to think small. Setting a goal of running for thirty seconds or doing one press-up may seem laughably small, but it means you don’t have an excuse not to.
Building tiny goals like this into your day and repeating them is the best way to form a habit. Research suggests it takes an average of 66 days for behaviour to go from controlled (we consciously think about it every time we do it) to habitual (the behaviour runs itself without us thinking). However, this length of time can vary quite a lot from one person to the next. The key to embedding exercise into your routine is to start with very small, achievable goals, which will naturally become more advanced as your technique and stamina improve.
We always think of our future selves as basically an ideal version of us today, which is why we tend to let them do the hard work. Surely tomorrow we’ll be less tired, less busy, and more motivated to exercise? Studies have shown that this lack of empathy is because the part of our brain that is active when we think about our future selves is the same part that we use when we think about other people, but not our present selves. In other words, when we put tasks off, we feel as though another person will have to do them, which encourages us to keep deferring.
So how can you overcome this bias and encourage your present self to hit the gym? One way is to try and reduce the variability in your behaviour. A study found that smokers who were told to smoke exactly the same number of cigarettes each day actually ended up reducing the number they were smoking. This is because having that ‘one last cigarette’ represented an extra one they’d have to smoke the next day, and the day after, and so on. The indulgence became a long-term commitment, rather than a short-term hit. The same goes for exercise. Instead of saying ‘it’s OK if I put if off just for today’, consider the consequences if you put it off today, the next day, the day after that ...
The current theory about willpower is that it’s like a muscle: it can be strengthened with exercise, but also fatigued with too much use. Every day we face a multitude of self-control challenges, but our willpower is also drained by any challenging tasks. One study found that people given a seven-digit number to memorise were much more likely to reach for chocolate cake over fruit afterwards than people given only two digits.
The behavioural economist Dan Ariely coined the term the ‘what the hell’ effect, for that moment when willpower deserts us. You may have experienced this yourself. For example, you’re on a health kick but it’s someone’s birthday in the office, and you give in and have some cake. A rational response would be to have a smaller dinner to balance it out, but we often find ourselves thinking ‘what the hell’ and ordering a takeaway when we get home, as it feels like we’ve already broken our diet.
To avoid this when it comes to exercise, the best time of the day is in the morning, when your willpower is at its strongest, having not been worn down by a day of self-control.
The final thing to remember is to have patience and be kind to yourself when you lose momentum. Studies have shown that those who are hard on themselves when they make mistakes may be more likely to give up before achieving their goal. Making a big lifestyle change is always difficult, and any progress you make towards your goal is worthy of celebration. Any slip-ups along the way are experiences to be learned from.
Do you know how healthy you truly are? Bupa health assessments give you a clear overview of your health. You’ll receive a personalised lifestyle action plan with health goals to reach for a healthier, happier you.