Exercise is a difficult habit to pick up.
It is not enough just to set aside a particular period in the day and rely on willpower to follow through.
Part of the reason is that people don’t necessarily start exercising because they enjoy it.
Instead, they start exercising to lose weight or look better.
When the changes are minimal, or not what they had hoped for, then it is easy to give up.
Internal rewards key to exercise habit
New research finds that one key to getting the exercise habit is tapping in to intrinsic rewards.
Intrinsic rewards are things like the pleasure we get from the activity itself.
This could be through socialising with others, the endorphin rush, or something else.
When intrinsic, internal rewards are linked up with a particular, regular slot in the day for exercising, then the habit can flourish in the long term.
Finding the missing key, then, is all about identifying those highly personal intrinsic rewards.
What is it about the exercise that makes you feel good?
If the answer is nothing, then it is time to think about different types of exercise that do make you feel good.
For example, gyms are not for everyone, some people prefer to play sports in teams, others prefer exercising alone.
Some people like rigid goals and structure, others prefer a more free-form approach.
Find your pleasure and the habit is much more likely to stick.
Dr Alison Phillips, who led the research, said:
“If someone doesn’t like to exercise it’s always going to take convincing.
People are more likely to stick with exercise if they don’t have to deliberate about whether or not to do it.[…]
If exercise is not habit, then it’s effortful and takes resources from other things you might also want to be doing.
That’s why people give it up.”
→ To find out more about getting fired up, try Dr Jeremy Dean’s motivation ebook.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology (Phillips et al., 2016).