Learning to Love Your Workout

Learning to Love Your Workout

John Lennon can help you get in shape. His words are more important than superior genetics, spare time, or even training “how to.” When it comes to following through on your New Year’s fitness resolution, “All You Need Is Love.”

Right about now you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking about.

Well, love may not be all you need, but developing a passion for the physical activity you engage in is critical for long-term success. People who get up early to run in the cold, adapt their schedules to go to the gym, push themselves to the limit in exercise classes, or cycle to work every day all have one thing in common: they don’t hate what they’re doing.

Purveyors of bogus fitness products sell a quick-fix miracle cure for getting in shape, but not only are they lying about the effectiveness of their products, they perpetuate the mistaken idea that exercise is a punishment to be endured, not enjoyed. That’s why they say things like “Only twenty minutes, three times a week…” Unfortunately, those who see exercise as no more than a means to an end rarely last more than a few months.

How do you learn to love exercise? It helps if you start off by not hating it.

If you go into a new exercise program with the attitude that it’s going to suck, then that’s a problem, but the solution is to minimize your discomfort by understanding some important keys to motivation. I’m not referring to the Tony Robbins pseudo-scientific “Awaken the Giant” crap, but the real science of cognitive behavioural change. This includes the work of Dr. Albert Bandura, the Stanford University psychologist, who in 1977 developed an important behaviour modification model called self-efficacy. This model implies that you should do the opposite of Nike’s famous “Just do it” tagline. Building self-efficacy follows more along the lines of: learn, plan, prepare, then do. It’s less catchy, but Bandura’s a researcher, not an ad hack.

Bandura determined that self-efficacy is a situation-specific form of self-confidence that can be developed to give people a sense of comfort prior to engaging in a new behaviour and increase their likelihood of persevering. He came up with four ways to build self-efficacy: 1) think about times in the past when you succeeded at the same or a similar type of activity, 2) model the behaviour of someone else who succeeded, 3) listen to the persuasion of those close to you who are encouraging of the new behaviour, and 4) gain an understanding of what this new behaviour is going to be like.

Here’s an example that drives Bandura’s logic home: you’ve never lifted weights in your life and I come along and advise you to start going hard with the iron tomorrow (Just do it). You go to a gym and have no clue what you’re doing. You’re a total spaz at lifting, maybe you hurt yourself; you hate it and never want to go back. Alternatively, you think about first building self-efficacy; you read about lifting weights, hire a personal trainer, get a plan together, and then go to the gym. You might not love your first workout, but it probably won’t ruin your day.

It may sound negative to talk about people hating exercise, but if it were easy to love then a lot more people would be doing it. Another way to minimize the discomfort of adopting a new exercise routine is to start slow. Don’t be in a rush to get in shape; instead, choose a level of intensity that is only moderately uncomfortable. People hate change and need time to adapt to a new routine. Once you do adapt, then you can increase the amount and intensity.

Going slow at adopting exercise is a difficult mindset for people who want to lose weight fast, which is why you need to put these types of goals out of your mind for a while. The most important goal you can have is not losing a certain number of pounds, building muscle, or decreasing cholesterol. The critical objective for a new exerciser is adopting a permanent lifestyle change. If you accomplish that then all other related goals are more easily achieved and maintained.

Sticking to it

Bandura’s advice helps you prepare for and act on your goals, and the work of renowned psychologist Dr. B. F. Skinner helps you maintain. If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology course then you probably learned about his reinforcement studies called operant conditioning. You not only want to start exercising but want to keep doing it for years to come, correct? Skinner discovered that there are four different types of events that can take place after a new behaviour that influences the likelihood of that behaviour taking place again in the future. The most important of these, and the most relevant to getting in shape, is “positive reinforcement.” If something good happens during or immediately after exercise then you will be willing to do it again. This is why losing weight is such a lousy motivator, because the reinforcement comes so much later than the activity. Instead of thinking about getting healthy or burning fat, focus on why exercise is enjoyable now. Some ideas for positive reinforcement: get into the social aspect of exercise, relish in the sense of accomplishment, enjoy the rush of endorphins, and even take pleasure in how a hot shower feels after a run in frigid temperatures.

You can also get positive reinforcement from external sources, such as a supportive spouse: “Ooh, honey! I’m proud of you for exercising so hard. Let me rub your back.” Be careful with this one, however, because it can end up making your activity seem like a chore to achieve your reward.

A parameter of operant conditioning to watch out for is “extinction”; if you don’t get your perceived reward for a while then the behaviour ceases. I have a personal example that took place a few years back: some friends and I used to take a weekly boxing circuit class and there was this one woman that always joined our group who looked just like actress Jeri Ryan (the hot Borg alien from Star Trek: Voyager). She was an outrageous flirt who motivated us to make it to the class every week. Even if we were sick or injured we still went and worked hard. Then one day “Jeri” stopped showing up. We kept going for a few weeks after, but eventually we all quit because we didn’t see it as enjoyable anymore; our positive reinforcement became extinct. This is why you should focus on positive feelings that come from an internal source that you control rather than an external one. The same type of situation could apply to your favourite yoga teacher quitting. In this case, you need to learn to love yoga more than any one teacher.

There are many ways to develop a love for exercise, but a key element is simply having the knowledge that it is important for success. If you approach exercise with a positive attitude and the understanding that you will learn to love it, then eventually that love will find a way.