Would you rather spend the next half-hour trying to survive a zombie attack or log a few miles on a treadmill? If you chose the zombies, chances are you’re not a fan of traditional exercise. We all know that working out is “good for us,” but what about those of us who just can’t stand it? Good news. Research shows that you can become active, stick with it, and—shocker—actually enjoy it.
The key is reframing how we think about physical activity. Fitness is usually sold to us as something that will help us live longer and reduce our risk of chronic disease. While this is true and great, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily motivate us in the moment to do push-ups instead of downing Doritos®. These four approaches work better.
#1 Ask: What will it do for me right now?
Immediate benefits—like relaxation, joy, stress relief, and sharp thinking—are far more motivating than the distant prospect of better health, according to behavioral scientists.
Identify the immediate perks
Those perks include a better mood, increased energy, a brainpower boost, stress relief, sharper focus, and positive feelings for yourself.
Think about it. Have you ever…
- Encountered a sunset and felt calm while on an evening walk?
- Felt a rejuvenated rush after bouncing to that new beat?
- Noticed you had more ability to focus on homework after volleyball practice?
“Helping people identify the ways they feel better immediately is the true driver of our decision to be active,” says Dr. Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. “Research shows that we are more motivated by rewards that we immediately experience than by ones we have to wait for in the future.”
“Fitness has helped me stay calm, relax myself, and remind me of who I am and what I can do. I play soccer, and it’s saved me from breaking down or giving up so many times,” says Riana, a student in Saco, Maine.
#2 Mind trick:
“This isn’t about fitness”
Some physical activities don’t feel like exercise, especially when you’re doing something you can get lost in and actually enjoy. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students described fitness as a mind game.
Lose the rules
“Toss out any rules you might have about how to exercise, because research shows you won’t keep it up [if those rules don’t reflect your feelings],” says Dr. Segar.
Give yourself permission
Move in ways that feel good to you and work with your schedule. “If all you can fit in is an extra five minutes a day, make that your plan and go from there,” says Dr. Segar.
“I just ride my bike as transportation. That way, there is no choice. If you want to go somewhere, you have to be active.”
—Jonathan, Portland, Oregon
How to make it about something else
“When someone hates exercise, I’ve found that they hate it most often because they are [participating] in activities they don’t like, at higher intensities [than they like], or in places they don’t like,” says Dr. Segar. What works? Doing stuff you like, at a pace you like, in places you like.
“I’m involved with marching band and competitive show choir, both of which are very fun but force me to do a lot of exercise unknowingly. In marching band, we have to do jumping jacks, crunches, and push-ups during every rehearsal. In choir, I get a huge workout from all the dances we learn.”
—Donnesha, senior, Carmel, Indiana
“I do squats or jog in place while watching TV.”
—Kiasia, junior, Wilmington, Delaware
“[I like] dancing for at least one hour to music. It will make it seem like you’re having fun but not exercising.”
—Asiah, senior, Forest Park, Illinois
#3 Claim a tangible reward
Try associating fitness with a reward. Again, this gets to those immediate benefits. If you’re someone who is motivated to avoid penalties, use that too.
Set a goal and relish the reward
Maybe it’s only at the gym that you can watch cable TV. Maybe you get a smoothie afterward.
Consider a commitment contract
“For example, you give money to a friend. If you hit your exercise target, you get the money back, but if you don’t, your friend gets to keep it,” says Dr. Fred Zimmerman, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches exercise behavior. “Or the money would be donated to the opposite political party than [with] which you agree or a group you’re not too fond of. This way, missing your goal is painful.”
“I make it a rule that I can only watch a TV show if I’m working out. So if I want to know what’s happening on Game of Thrones, I have to be running.”
—Andi, Lawrence, Kansas
#4 Hang out with your fit friends
“If our friends work out regularly and support our exercise goals, we are more likely to exercise,” says Dr. Xiaomeng Xu, professor of psychology at Idaho State University. Working out in a pair, team, or group makes it more fun and is a great way to meet people or solidify existing relationships.
Make a plan with a friend
“When you hang out with your friends, play a [physical] game. If I’m with my friends, it doesn’t really feel like exercise.”
—Carissa, junior, Winnetka, Illinois
“Just the other day, I didn’t want to go run, but I had told my friend that I would run with him. Once I made that commitment, I knew that I was going to do it no matter what. I hate backing out.”
—Camden, Wichita Falls, Texas
More ways to make it social
Join an intramural or club team—maybe dodgeball, softball, or bowling.
Shake it out
Find a dance class: hip hop, Zumba®, African, breakdancing, Bollywood—whatever gets you most excited to move.
Conquer life’s obstacles
Does belly crawling through mud sound like your idea of a good time? No? All the more reason to try it. The beginner’s version, a Spartan Sprint, is about three miles long and has more than 20 obstacles (think fire pits and barbed wire). By the end of the course, your new muddy look will be all over Instagram.
Walk it out
Walk with a group or on your own. Pass the time by downloading your favorite podcast or audiobook, or chatting with a friend.
Kenneth Clark, certified personal trainer and small group instructor, Washington, DC.
Michelle Segar, PhD, MHP, director, Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan and author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Xiaomeng Xu, PhD, professor of psychology, Idaho State University.
Fred Zimmerman, PhD, professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, University of California Los Angeles.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Exercise for stress and anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, May 19). Adolescent and school health: Physical activity facts. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/physicalactivity/facts.htm
Harvard Health Publications. (2013, May). Regular exercise releases brain chemicals key for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness. Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/regular-exercise-releases-brain-chemicals-key-for-memory-concentration-and-mental-sharpness
Michellesegar.com. (n.d.). Sustainable behavior change for organizations, professionals, and app developers. Retrieved from http://michellesegar.com/organizations/
Zimmerman, F. J. (2009). Using behavioral economics to promote physical activity. Preventive Medicine, 49(4), 289–291.