With the wide range of sources providing you with exercise advice, it’s hard to know whose guidelines to follow. Exercise 20 minutes at a time? How about 4 minutes? Once a day? Three times a week? And, of course, what kind of exercise should you do? If that's not confusing enough, there’s the idea that you can even count sex as a great cardio workout.

One thing’s for sure: We all know that exercise benefits our health. However, we also know this: Exercise takes time, can be painful, and is difficult to squeeze into our already jam-packed days. Weighing the costs against the rewards, unfortunately, some people opt out. Those gym memberships you opened on January 2 are going unused, and the longer you put off getting back into a workout routine, the more difficult it is to get back into it.

Knowing a little bit about the psychology of exercise, however, can help you power through those days, weeks, or even months of procrastination. You can make this knowledge work best for you by adapting these guidelines to your personal needs, interests, and goals. OK, let’s get started:

Pointer #1: Evaluate the costs and rewards

Start with that cost-reward ratio to evaluate what’s keeping you from getting on, or back on, an exercise routine. You may justifiably argue that you don’t have time for exercise. However, think about the costs if you don’t. People who exercise are less likely to develop both chronic and acute illnesses, so that by exercising, you’re cutting down on your sick days. At the same time, people who exercise feel more energized. Although you may feel too tired at the end of a long day to consider a stop at the gym, the chances are your alertness levels, and your better mood, will more than make up for the minutes you spend on the elliptical or in the weight room.

Pointer #2: Use intrinsic motivation to your advantage

Finding out what motivates you will help get you through your workout, but in the long term, it’s feeling internally driven that will make exercise an inherent part of your everyday life.  You will eventually come to love exercising when you truly embrace the way it makes your body feel. You’ll also feel that you can do more with your body, because you’ll be developing abilities you didn’t know you have. For example, perhaps you’ve always had a terrible sense of balance. However, in a moment of inner bravery, you tentatively stand on a bosu ball (one of those half domed exercise balls that sits on a platform). Discovering that it’s not as scary as you thought it might be, you get a little bolder and place both feet squarely in the middle. Next, you sign up for a workout class that incorporates this little balance-promoting wonder.  Within weeks, as your balance and confidence continue to improve, you’ll feel justifiable pride in your new-found abilities- and be less likely to slip on the ice in the future.

Pointer #3: Exercise because you want to, not because someone else wants you to

The basic idea behind intrinsic motivation is that you feel internally driven. Following along with the idea that this is the kind of motivation that will promote long-term healthy habits is a related notion. Working out to please others, no matter how important they are to you, will only carry you so far. You are the only one who knows how exercise makes you feel inside, and you will be the only one to benefit from the feelings of competence and strength that you gain from adhering to your exercise program. Conceivably, other people could become just as annoyed that you do exercise by the fact that you don’t. Your spouse wants to know why you’re getting up and out so early instead of staying home and having a leisurely breakfast. Your boss or business partner wants you to stay an extra hour to finish up a project at work. The more you feel that exercise is meeting your personal goals, the less tempted (or guilty) you’ll feel by the forces that attempt to push or pull you to or from the gym.

Pointer #4: Don’t give in to ego depletion

The ego-depletion effect refers to the tendency to fall victim to temptation after engaging in an activity that mentally, if not physically, depletes your self-control. According to Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, people who exert themselves mentally or physically have less control over their impulses to eat, drink alcohol, smoke or otherwise undo all the good they’ve just accomplished. You have to be vigilant to ward off the effect of ego depletion in your exercise. Even if you’re not exercising to lose weight, you still need to protect yourself against giving into the desire to “reward” yourself with high-fat, high-sugar foods, alcohol, or some other behavior that runs counter to your exercise goals.

Pointer #5: Measure your progress

The technology industry now makes it possible for you to monitor almost every biological function imaginable. You can quantify each morsel of food that enters your mouth in terms of its nutrient breakdown and measure each step taken by your feet. While you sleep, you can measure the percent of deep sleep you’ve had each night, and even connect your sleep quality with the amount of caffeine you’ve had during the day. Gadgets such as FitBit and the Jawbone UP allow you to connect a body monitoring device with a smartphone app that you can check throughout the day to see how you’re doing. At the risk of becoming obsessed with all of this data, there are good psychological reasons that argue in favor of your taking your workout to this quantitative level. You don't need to use these gadgets  as a weight management tool alone, particularly if your goal is to become more fit. The more you can graph your progress, the more in control you’ll feel of your ability to accomplish your exercise goals.  Interestingly, some people using these devices “cheat” by trying to run up their step total if they fall short by the end of the day. However, it’s not really cheating if you’re moving your feet instead of standing still even if you’re only brushing your teeth at the same time.  

Pointer #6: Team up with a buddy

The advice given by health experts to find a support group or exercise buddy makes sense psychologically. Social support is one of the best forms of all for coping with stress. People can endure great hardship if they have others who they feel will understand, even if those people do nothing concretely to help. The same principle applies to exercise teams or weight loss groups.  Although as I noted earlier, intrinsic motivation is what will keep you going over the long haul, social support will get you through the rougher moments especially when you feel that you’re not making as much progress as you’d like. Stony Brook University psychologists Susan Darlow and Xiaomeng Xu (2011) reported that friends were more likely to exercise if their friends did, particularly when the friends provided strong social support. One of the optional features of the electronic gadgets that measure your body’s movements is that you can join a team. You and your partners can virtually egg each other on, even if you don’t see each other in person, taking advantage of your competitive if not socially supportive instincts.

To sum up, the joys of exercise may not always seem that apparent to you. However, by putting these six commonsense tips to use, you’ll find that your workouts become a natural part of your daily routine, and your pride in your body’s ability a part of your identity.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 


Darlow, S. D., & Xu, X. (2011). The influence of close others’ exercise habits and perceived social support on exercise. Psychology Of Sport And Exercise, 12(5), 575-578. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.04.004

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