Trick your brain into loving your workout

Trouble maintaining exercise? Trick your brain into loving your workout.

Posted Sep 21, 2009

I truly admire people who seem to exercise effortlessly every few days.
I'm not one of them. I know lot of very good reasons to work out, both for your body and your brain. Yet it's just not been a regular part of my life so far, and now that I can see it needs to be, in my 40's, it's tough.

So I have starting to use what I know about the brain to trick my own brain into creating a new set of exercise habits. Here's what I have been learning through my struggles and breakthroughs.

Unconscious responses
Today I got into a hotel elevator to go to the gym (I'm in Singapore this week). I intended to press the button labelled ‘gym'. But before I knew it, my hand had, all by itself, pressed the button labelled ‘bar' instead.

That's the trouble with my (and many people's) brain. Subconsciously, we don't see exercise as anything to look forward to, it's just not something we want to do. So it's really easy to be distracted. This distraction usually happens before we're even aware of it. (Fortunately I caught this distraction before I had a first drink.)

The brain is naturally tuned to minimize effort, unless there's a perceived reward on the other side. (That's why millions of ‘effort saving' products exist in the world, from the TV remote control to the automatic garage door opener.) Effort is subconsciously perceived as a threat. The reason is that effort (both physical and mental) uses up valuable metabolic resources, which only a fraction of society have easy access too (and only in the last 150 years or so). The brain focuses a lot on minimizing threats, neuroscientist Evian Gordon calls this an 'overarching organizing principle of the brain'. So we tend to automatically avoid effort, and as a result find ourselves in the bar by accident a lot more often than the gym. How do you work around this when exercise is important?

Turning threat into reward
Everything the brain interacts with is either a threat or reward. One study showed that we even class nonsense words automatically into one of these categories. It's one of the brain's most all-encompassing functions.

In the brain the best way to counter a threat is with a possible reward. A reward way down the track, like living longer, while attractive as an idea, is still quite uncertain, and uncertainty tends to be a threat. That's perhaps why knowing all the good reasons why we should exercise doesn't seem to do it for a lot of people.

Developing a (healthy) addiction
Instead of trying to talk ourselves into exercise by focusing on it's long term benefits, we need to find ways of turning exercise into a reward-rich event in the present. Once we have tricked our brain into thinking that exercise is a reward, then we need to pay a lot of attention to this reward experience so that we develop a kind of healthy 'addiction' to exercise. How you do this can come in infinitely different ways, depending on what works for you. I think the key is to find a strategy that suits your interests, lifestyle and needs. Let's explore a few possible examples based on insights from brain research.

Rewarding, in just the right way for you
My own strategy is to tie exercise into my work, as I already love my work (sorry, that does sound bad but it's true). Exercising is the one way I know, for sure, I can unblock an idea or project in my head. If I am stuck for an idea, a swim or a run does it every time. So I link exercise to something I am already placing as very important, which means I feel rewarded by. It helps me unlock other painful experiences like being out of ideas. (The reason insights happen during exercise involves an part the ability to quiet down the overall ambient noise of the brain as I wrote about in a recent post.)

Another short term reward that might work for you could be being able to sleep better. Another might be the joy of the ‘runner's high' you get half way through a good work out. The key is to find a reward that's important to you. Importance means interest, and interest means dopamine, and dopamine means a lot of things, including in a big way, reward.

Another idea is you could download interesting podcasts to listen to while you exercise, so the reward is about your audio experience, to distract you from the pain. I'm a fan of NeuroPod, brain science podcats. (I also have a few brain-related podcasts myself you can download free.). Or better yet, listen to some stand up comedy: humor is a great dopamine raiser. This way you either get smarter (which raises your sense of status, a strong reward), or laugh a lot while you work out. Your brain could really look forward to these kinds of events. When you look forward to something it means your brain is interested in it, it's being perceived as a reward. That's the key. Make it interesting. Without being interesting, somehow, exercise will always be something to avoid and you'll find yourself in the bar before you know it.

Building your social (exercise) circuits
Another strateg

y that works for many people is to link to the social reward response, by joining a group exercising, like playing a team sport, or by working out with a buddy. This has a series of benefits. Firstly social connections themselves are inherantly rewarding (read more on this in another recent post.) Secondly, we don't want to let someone else down, so we're far more likely to turn up. That's because the feeling of letting someone down is a threat - we will drop in their status, which activates a threat response in the brain.

So, one great way of ensuring you do exercise is to do it with a friend you like and don't want to let down, and doing something that still lets you both have conversations, especially if this involves, believe it or not, a good conversation about other people. Gossip doesn't just feel good, it turns out to release some wonderfully rewarding hormones too.

In an emergency, work out how to avoid pain
Sometimes I need to call in the 'big guns' to focus on exercise. I  know that avoiding pain tends to focus the brain more than activating reward. So another strategy is to plan an event that would be exceedingly painful if you didn't work out in preparation for it - like running a marathon or going skiing for several days. This one works for me: the thought of being in so much pain I couldn't consciously choose to go to a bar after a day on the snow, is enough of a threat to get me out running daily for a few months before a ski trip. Bad is stronger than good, therefore sometimes avoiding pain is the motivation that's needed.

The ends justfy the means (at least when it comes to mental strategies)
When it comes to creating routines for exercise, whatever mental strategy that works for you is good. That's because the benefits of exercise truly are spectacular, including a healthier heart and a sharper brain. Exercises helps you grow new neurons and even live longer. Its just that the knowing these benefits doesn't create change: what creates change is truly wanting to do something day to day, which requires some kind of day to day reward.

The good news is that your brain loves a good reward and can become addicted to new rewards fairly easily. A new study showed that most new habts are created within a month and few take more than 66 days. Try a new rewarding activity for just a few week and you might find you develop a positive addiction that's harder to stop than it was to start.