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These Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Workout Motivation

Contrary to what you might think, there aren’t any popular or well-known ways of getting used to the fitness lifestyle, at least not to the point where you would say something like, “I can’t meet you for brunch now. I have to complete my run first.” They say you must “want it” really bad. Or that you must engage in an activity for 21 days in a row before you become really accustomed to it. But nobody tells you what to do on the 30th day when the winter’s cold is biting outside, and you’d give anything to cancel your run and stay under the covers for a couple of hours more.

A large number of people who exercise casually would love to engage in it more often, but they have a hard time finding proper motivation so as to make physical exercise an integral part of their daily routine.

Fitness Motivation Made Simple

Luckily, psychologists and economists have long tried to decipher the code behind the reasons that make us do certain things against our will, over and over again. Here’s what they’ve come up with.

1. Reward Yourself  

For some people, dubious goals such as “improved health” or “weight control” might work, but if you are not one of them, journalist Charles Duhigg, writer of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business suggests making the benefits of exercise more concrete; for example, like treating yourself to a smoothie or watching an episode of your favorite TV show afterwards.

“An external reward has such a strong effect because your mind can grasp it and make the association that the act is worthwhile.”

He explains how to create a neurological “habit loop,” which entails a cue to stimulate the act (placing your running shoes by your bag), the act itself (complete a running session) and then the reward. “An external reward has such a strong effect because your mind can grasp it and make the association that the act is worthwhile,” he says. “It makes it more likely that the act becomes a routine.”

As the time passes, the motivation becomes internal, because the brain starts relating pain and sweat with the release of endorphins – those chemicals that are endogenously produced in the brain and are responsible for that feel-good sensation you have after a great workout. After showing your brain that the real reward is exercise itself, you won’t even crave for the external reward.

2. Commit In The Presence Of Others

While making self-promises is something we do every day, it has been shown that the odds of following through on commitments are much higher if we do so in front of friends.

You can even raise the stakes a bit more, by signing a pact where you pledge to pay a friend $20 every time you miss a session of Pilates. “It’s the simple idea of increasing the costs,” says Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, PhD, who is an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, an expert in the field of health decision. “I pledge to engage in an activity for a specific amount of time, such as completing three 30-minute workouts weekly, for three months. If I fail to keep that promise, I am penalized, either with money or with the embarrassment of having everyone I know watch me failing to honor my word.”

Goldhaber-Fiebert et al. conducted studies of people who created contracts online, and found that the ones who signed the longest contracts ultimately exercised more than their shorter-committed counterparts.  “We have to overcome the first unpleasant feelings to realize the benefits that come in the long-term,” he says. “The hard part is to devise instruments to help make it a reality.”

Another example of really committing in front of others, even if they’re not there, is to join a virtual group of like-minded enthusiasts. While this isn’t a new idea, there are a few twists on it that have combined social media, technology, and real time streaming to really take it to the next level. For instance, my friends are all part of a closed Facebook group called ‘The Biggest Loser’ not unlike the popular TV show. Each day all my lady friends weigh in, update their points, and take snapshots of their progress. It’s a great motivator.

3. Re-imagine Positive Attitude

Supporters of positive attitude have long advocated for the visualization of the benefits that result from a certain attitude as a strategy that gives incentive.  For instance, when I am debating with myself if I should leave my warm bed to go for a run in the morning, imagining the sun’s light on my face is really helpful. Or the feeling I will derive from admiring my new muscle gains.

“When you visualize the obstacle, you can decide how to run past it and plan accordingly.”

However, these positive-feeling visualizations are only effective when you accompany them with more realistic problem-solving techniques. At least this is what Gabriele Oettingen, PhD, a psychologist at NYU and the writer of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation maintains.

This is what you have to do: After zeroing in on your desire and picturing the result, you have to figure out what’s stopping you – a method called “mental contrasting.” In a study of fifty-one female students who stated they wished to eat less junk food, the participants were requested to imagine the benefits of opting for healthier snacks. The ones who could figure out the factor which prevented them from snacking on healthy food –and could devise a method of eating fruit to quench their craving- had the most success in remaining focused on their goal.

Are you too exhausted to hit the gym after work? Visualize the obstacle, and discover a way to run past it and devise a plan”, says Oettingen. For instance, you can try working out in the morning or during lunchtime, or hit the gym directly after work, avoiding passing out at home first.

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4. Get Paid

Still having trouble? Maybe you should resort to hard, cold cash. Research investigating financial incentives and exercise showed that people who were compensated with $100 to hit the gym had 100% higher attendance rate. “All you need is have people to continue doing an activity, and compensating them for it was effective,” explains Gary Charness, PhD, a behavioral economist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and study author.

If you don’t have access to generous donors, you can take a look at the likes of Pact, an app in which a network of users will actually pay you to follow your schedule. If you fail to do so, you authorize the app to charge your PayPal account or credit card. When you hit your target, you get paid out of a common pot financed by yourself and other pact-breakers.

Regardless of the way you used to get there, when the day comes that skipping your workout is simply out of the question, you’ll know you succeeded. Name it an escape, pleasure or addiction. However, what counts is that it has become a regular habit, with a purpose to serve you and only you.

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