Exercising in the New Year

Charging up your motivation for change

Posted Jan 07, 2014

Already the shine may be coming off your New Year’s resolution, as your sparkling good intentions meet the realities of your weekly grind.  The first week of January is an excellent time to remind you about a core strategy of keeping on track with your exercise goals.

The core of the idea is to never rely on a single motivation alone, but to identify and bundle together motivations whenever possible.  I first wrote about this in my Motivation 101 blog entry over two years ago, where I talked about the benefits of making exercise time a much richer experience by combining it with other motivations.  I used examples of shared social runs and the value of music during exercise.  Since that time, as I put on more miles out running, I found that music wasn’t enough to keep me motivated.  Part of this was because I could listen to music anytime - while driving, working, or relaxing.  Music wasn’t a unique enough experience to pull me out on the road for a run.  I had to think of something I really wanted to do, that I could combine with running, that would help make me look forward to the next run. 

The answer was fiction!  Specifically, it was the chance to read fiction.  I never have time to read fiction. I had tried listening to audiobooks while driving, but my commute is short, and I just found myself sitting in the parking structure, making myself late for my day while waiting for the end of a particularly good chapter.  But if I was running, and wanted to hear more...then I would just keep running.

My first test of this notion came with the second book in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.  I had bought the trilogy on CDs for the car, and sat in my parked car as I finished the first book.  To try the second book while running, I had to dig out my old portable CD player, load in a CD and then hit the road (awkwardly holding the CD player level so that it would play well).  I made sure to store the CDs and player in my bag with my running gear, and made the deal with myself that I could listen to the book as much as I wanted, as long as I was running.  That is, as long as I kept the CD player paired with running and only running, then I did not have to be motivated to run – I could use my motivation to listen to the novel to pull me into my shoes and out on the road.

It worked.  I found myself looking forward to each run. I ran longer, and ended up running more days during the week – all because I looked forward to getting into the next chapter of the book. I also kept my bargain with myself; the CD player stayed with my running gear.  If I wanted the book, I had to be running. Getting out for a run had never been so easy, and the only self control effort it took was keeping the link between listening and running.

Yet, holding a CD player was really awkward, and it did not take me long to boost myself into the current century and start to download audiobooks directly to my phone.  This made the process much easier, but it also made it really tempting to cheat – to listen to my books at times other than running.    

Why tell you about all this now?  The reason is that exactly this strategy was the target of a recent study published online in the November, 2013, issue of Management Science (and featured in brief in the January 5th New York Times).  In the study, researchers from the Wharton School and Harvard Kennedy School examined the effect of “enjoying page-turner audiobooks” while working out.  The audiobooks were stored at the gym to provide the pull to help participants get to the gym for their more enjoyable workout time.  And it worked really well.  Participants who received audio novels and/or iPods for gym use only exercised 51% more than those in the control condition.  The study had the neat feature of storing the iPods at the gym, thus controlling the urge to cheat.  With the iPod at the gym, the wonderful pull of the audiobook was fully linked to workout time.

So, as you come face-to-face with the difficulty keeping your New Year’s resolutions, try not to rely on your good intentions alone.  Think about how you may be able to combine several motivations together, so that difficult tasks like exercising more, eating or drinking less, or quitting smoking can be made easier because they are linked with something else you enjoy.  In the case of running, see if Sookie Stackhouse or Harry Potter on your earphones can make it easier to meet your goals.

Copyright Michael Otto

Michael Otto is a Professor of Psychology at Boston University and co-author, with Jasper Smits, of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.