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One-Two Punch of "Cue and Reward" Makes Exercise a Habit

Combining a conditioned cue and intrinsic reward is key to forming good habits.

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Why is sticking with an exercise routine so challenging for most people? According to a new study from Iowa State University (ISU), one reason exercise doesn’t become a habit for a lot of people is that “extrinsic motivators”—such as exercising to lose weight or look good—don’t have the psychological staying power to motivate people day in and day out over the long haul.

Of course, exercising for external reasons, such as weight loss, are legitimate reasons to start and maintain an exercise regimen. But, according to lead author of this new study, Alison Phillips, even if you achieve that extrinsic reward, it's usually not enough to make exercise an automatic behavior. Plus, if you don't see the external results you want quickly enough, you're likely quit. This is why habit formation is essential to creating life-long behavioral changes.

"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," Phillips said in a statement.

The September 2016 study, “Intrinsic Rewards Predict Exercise via Behavioral Intentions for Initiators but via Habit Strength for Maintainers,” appears in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology.

For this study, Phillips and colleagues conducted two separate studies that analyzed activity levels for 'initiators' (who don't stick with an exercise routine) and 'maintainers' (who had been exercising regularly for at least three months). In the first study, participants reported the duration and intensity of exercise each week. In the second study, accelerometers were used to track the activity of participants.

According to the research findings, the key to creating an exercise habit and becoming a 'maintainer' lies in the 'one-two punch' of combining a conditioned cue and intrinsic reward. First, you need a trigger or cue that flips a switch in your head to “go” and begin your workout. Second, over time you need to encode intrinsic rewards that are associated with specific benefits you personally attach to your daily workout.

Unfortunately, simply having the intellectual knowledge that staying physically active will make someone healthier, happier, more creative, less stressed, reduce body fat, increase muscle mass, and add years to his or her life doesn't seem to be enough to motivate most people to develop a long-term exercise habit.

The good news is that the researchers identified that the simple one-two punch of a conditioned cue and intrinsic reward made it easy for a study group to go from being exercise initiators to exercise maintainers.

Personal Cues and Rewards That Motive You Need to Be Road Tested Over Time

Intrinsic rewards take time to develop and are very personal. Discovering what is intrinsically rewarding about exercise for you, personally, can only be achieved through trial-and-error. No two people are motivated or inspired to exercise regularly by exactly the same blend of intrinsic rewards.

The next time you have a great workout, take note of something specific that made it intrinsically rewarding. You might say to yourself, "I was so stressed out before I got to the gym, but I feel so relaxed leaving now." Or, "I felt really sluggish and had a headache before going on that brisk walk, but now I feel energized and clear headed." Or, "The only time I really feel socially connected and a sense of community is when I’m sweating it out in spin class.”

Obviously, the key to creating effective intrinsic rewards is to fill in the blanks with genuine inner-dialogue statements based on something you've experienced first hand. Play around with pinpointing exactly what it is that makes exercise an agreeable experience for you.

In a statement, Phillips 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."

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Developing an exercise habit is a complex behavior that requires a multi-faceted strategy. Simple habits, like brushing your teeth, take a few minutes a day, very little physical effort, and are easy to maintain. Exercise, on the other hand, takes an investment of time, energy, and is initially perceived as a disagreeable experience.

Ultimately, Phillips found that the intrinsic rewards make it so that you prefer exercising to not exercising in response to your conditioned cues. "If you do not feel better or enjoy exercising, you're going to do something else when forced to make a decision," Phillips said.

All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, the most effective intrinsic reward is always going to be making the association that exercise makes you feel good. This is true on a psychological, physical, and neurobiological level.

Decades ago, I realized that the external symbol of sweat streaming from my pores represented endogenous “bliss” molecules—such as endocannabinoids, endorphin, and dopamine—pumping inside my brain. Instead of thinking of sweat as a symbol that I was suffering through a disagreeable experience, I began to equate breaking a sweat with the intrinsic reward of unleashing a flood of feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones. The euphoria of these neurochemicals cascading through my body and brain made exercise an ecstatic process in my mind.

The fact that exercise makes human beings feel good on a neurobiological level is summed up in the equation Sweat=Bliss. This revelation is why my first book and platform is titled, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss.

Conclusion: Create a Personalized Rolodex of Cues and a Laundry List of Intrinsic Rewards

While you're fine-tuning motivational cues and intrinsic rewards that work for you, it’s best to be creative and very specific. I’ve found that the more esoteric, quirky, and tailored to my personality a conditioned cue is, the more likely it is to flip the switch in my brain that makes me eager to work out and break a sweat.

For example, the smell of Coppertone sunscreen reminds me of bright blue, sunshine-filled skies and is energizing. On cold, gray mornings, if I feel the urge to stay under the covers instead of going outside for a jog, I'll force myself out of bed and immediately spray on some Coppertone. I'll also cue up a song like "Summertime, Summertime" that makes me feel like it's August—even in the dead of winter—and puts me in a headspace capable of facing a freezing-cold workout. If there is specific music or smells that inspire you, condition these cues to become triggers that get you psyched up for a workout.

Another personal intrinsic reward of working out for me is problem-solving. As an example, when I write something in the pre-dawn hours before working out (such as this blog post) I often struggle to make the narrative flow cohesively. I've learned from experience that if I put together a rough draft before I go for my morning jog—as the sun comes up when I'm out running—I can visualize the entire document in my mind's eye like a flow chart. While pounding the pavement, I come up with structural changes and edits in my head and then make the corrections to the final document the minute I get back to my computer.

The win-win of using exercise to improve your writing is that it combats sedentarism and gets your creative juices going simultaneously. If you ever need to put together a presentation or write an important email, remember that one intrinsic reward of aerobic exercise is that it optimizes your cognitive flexibility and creative capacity.

For more tips on habit formation, check out a free sample of chapter ten, “Sticking With It,” from The Athlete’s Way. In the section on “reprogramming your habit brain” (the hyperlink above will take you there) I go into more detail about four methods of behavioral conditioning based on motivational cues and intrinsic rewards that will solidify your exercise habit. The advice in this chapter dovetails seamlessly with the one-two punch advice from the recent ISU study.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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