Let’s face it. Staying in shape is hard. For the vast majority of us, consistent workout routines don’t exist. Why? Because they simply don’t have to. Joining a fitness club, buying new running shoes, or setting arbitrary weight loss or other health goals don’t make you have to exercise either. Instead of taking a rational approach to fitness, let your ancestral brain go to work for you.
We humans didn’t evolve to sit at desks all day, battle endless stress, and grab ready-made processed food when hunger strikes. But we can, and so we do. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. Ironically enough, it’s that relationship to pleasure and pain that causes our health to deteriorate over time.
Many of our lifestyle choices are bad for us, but they don’t feel that way, so we keep doing them. Exercise, on the other hand, literally feels bad, and so we do less of that, despite our intellectual understanding of the benefits.
While one could argue that people who workout consistently are rationally choosing to put in the effort and prioritize it on a regular basis, more evidence is showing that those people don’t really have more “willpower” than the rest of us. Instead, exercise is an important outlet for their other natural drives like winning and dominating, socializing, or fulfilling an endorphin addiction (the neurotransmitter that tells your brain exercise actually feels good).
The idea here isn’t to minimize anyone’s hard work. It’s to show you that no human adult is wired to want to exercise. We are wired to be physically active for survival, and because survival used take up a lot of our energy, choosing to be active was moot. Everyone was active and that’s all there was to it. Only children feel the urge to exercise because their developing bodies are preparing for adulthood. Children don’t have to rationalize exercise– they have an innate drive to do it, so long as they’re given the opportunity. How then, can adults tap more of their innate drives to exercise more? Here how.
1. Make it easy (at first).
We opt out of being active because we perceive it as hard. Our ancestors were smart to choose what was easy, but they were very active anyway. Now we call it lazy because most everything is comparatively easy, requiring little effort.
There is a lot of truth to the idea that simply taking the stairs, or parking further from your building every day can make a difference. You could stand when taking phone calls or while watching that first half hour of television in the evening. Whatever you do, pick one thing and stick with it. Don’t feel dumb that it’s too little, or think that becoming ambitious will suddenly snap you out of habitual sloth. Your brain isn’t wired to make huge changes, and that’s OK.
Millions of people have run marathons after not being able to run a single mile. That only happens because they started small, and made the “easy” choices to start.
2. Make it social.
Our social drives are incredibly powerful. We need interaction, companionship and acceptance. Way back it was a necessity of survival, and that’s why people are so afraid of being embarrassed or looking stupid. Our brains want us to “fit in;” being an outsider isn’t safe.
Use your social drives to your advantage by announcing your exercise goals to others, and recruiting a partner or even a team to help you. If three co-workers will also commit to parking five blocks away, or taking the stairs or walking at lunchtime, the follow-through rate skyrockets.
We’ve all figured out how to deal with disappointing ourselves, so making one more personal commitment isn’t likely to last. (It’s just statistics, don’t get depressed about it!) Making public commitments, on the other hand carry a lot more weight. Find at least one partner, then see who else you can recruit to your cause.
Many online exercise apps even have this social feature built right in, because it works so well. Classes are social by nature. Find someone you can go with, because joining a gym on your own won’t do it.
3. Make it fun.
If the idea of a trainer screaming at you is inspiring, good for you. If not, don’t go picking hard or unpleasant activities because that seems like the route to hardbody status. Taking a basketball to shoot around at your local court is a simple step that could burn a couple hundred calories without even “trying” to workout.
Not into sports? There are lots of other kinds of games and innovative new fitness equipment that can work your whole body in unique (and fun) ways, so that you don’t feel stuck, staring up at a bench press bar with twelve more reps to do. You’ve no doubt heard of how good the Wii gaming system is for encouraging exercise, but have you heard of Absolo trainers for your core muscles, or Xerdance Wireless Dance Pads?
It doesn’t have to be competitive to be fun of course. Which brings us to our next point.
4. Make it engaging.
Whatever your preferred activities, if they are social and fun, chances are good, they will also be engaging, even in their own right. Imagine yourself engrossed in the process– do you like it? Do you find yourself forgetting about other things while you focus on the activity? Do you think about doing more of it?
Both recreational and sports leagues are highly engaging. So are gardening clubs, outdoor clubs, volunteer organizations, fitness classes and skills development practice. Most people who play golf aren’t very good at it, but the activity comes pre-packaged with an addictive element: hitting that one perfect shot.
Look for activities that can capture your attention in that way, and you won’t have to decide to go do them, you’ll look forward to them and being active will become a foregone conclusion. Some people who love spinning classes go for the guided imagery that the instructor provides, taking them on an “imaginary” bike ride that ends up being an incredible workout.
5. Make it part of a bigger plan.
There is a common myth out there that in order to accomplish anything big, you have to set big goals. In some respects that’s true. Fitness is different, however. It’s about regular changes that add up over time. You can be in great shape without ever working out in a conventional sense, running a marathon or dedicating hours and hours to struggle and pain.
Instead, think about what inspires you. If you’ve found ways to take small steps to being more active in a social, fun and engaging way, you may have already identified your “big picture” motivations that will help you keep it going when things get boring, or you feel too busy, or you have to recover from an injury.
You might decide that being fit will help you check off a life-long dream, like hiking to Mount Everest base camp, or simply walking to the park with your grandchildren. Whatever your plan, it’ll have to include a very basic assumption about yourself that goes something like this:
“I make healthy choices for myself, and it feels good.”
Stop trying so hard to rationalize exercise and battle with your drive to do things the easy way– you can’t beat it. We humans have spent countless generations figuring out how to make our lives easier. Instead, find ways to make yourself feel good. That’s what it’s all about.
Ed Freeland writes for Excite Your Environment Fitness, an Innovative Fitness Equipment supplier specializing in supplying commercial fitness equipment to the Australian and Asian region. Among their products is the climbing wall, a favorite for kids around the world.