Editor’s Note: This story is part of 5 Habits Changes You Can Actually Make In 2015. Check out the full list here.
Exercise: It can be something we dread and never get around to, or a godsend for our self-esteem, productivity, and health. It’s really what you make of it.
As we discussed when we proposed last week’s habit challenge, there are (at least) two reasons exercise helps us get more done. First, it triggers the release of chemicals in our brains that have been shown to help reduce stress, and if you’ve ever experienced “runner’s high,” you know what that feeling is like.
Numerous studies, like this one from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, show that mood plays a big role in how productive we are throughout the day.
Additionally, researchers believe exercise brings about feelings of self-efficacy, which basically means we feel like we can accomplish stuff. This can be just want you need when you’re faced with a lot of difficult work tasks.
But even when we know how great exercise is for us, making it part of our daily lives is easier said than done.
Co.Labs Associate Editor John Paul Titlow explains:
There are very few activities that have such a hugely positive impact as exercise. It improves my mood, productivity, physical fitness, etc. Yet for most of us, it’s a struggle to get into the habit. If I ever let myself go a week or two without running, when I get back into the habit, I’m like “Oh right, this.”
Here’s how we felt about working out for just 20 minutes a day:
Titlow felt an impact on his mood, mental clarity, and productivity not just immediately following one of his daily running sessions, but throughout the week. He compares running to hitting a “reset button” on his brain and believes it helps melt away stress and makes it easier to focus.
Assistant News Editor Rose Pastore agrees with the reset button comparison, saying that her 20 minutes of running were the only time during each day that she could really let her mind wander. “Exercise was like sleep in that way: My brain used the time to consolidate new information and solve problems,” she explains.
While some of our participants preferred to exercise in the morning and others in the evening, both times procured some serious benefits.
Personally, I felt an extra jolt when I got into work in the morning after doing my cardio for the day. I felt more ready and able to tackle important projects. Pastore also believes working out in the morning sets a positive tone for the rest of the day. “I liked feeling as though I had accomplished something important before I even got to the office,” she says.
Copy Editor David Penick used his evening walks and exercises to calm down from the stress he had built up during the workday. “I noticed that I don’t breathe enough while working, so getting outside and moving brought me back to my breath,” he says. “And I slept much better each night.”
This benefit to sleep is not surprising, especially since having bedtime routines that include healthy brain habits can prepare our brains and bodies for a more restful night’s sleep and a more productive day ahead.
And scheduling exercise for the evening can also help wrap up any miscellaneous work tasks that could linger long into the evening, something we’ll explore with this week’s habit challenge.
An added perk, one good habit begets more good habits, according to Titlow. “For whatever reason, exercising regularly has a way of motivating me to eat better and generally take better care of myself,” he says.
One of the reasons we do these habit challenges for just a week at a time is because it’s a good idea to start small when forming new habits. When we set goals that are too intimidating, we’ve basically given up before we even started.
I always have high expectations when I start working out–I have grand dreams of becoming really athletic and shedding a lot of weight. That’s a very all-or-nothing attitude to have and the quickest way to go back to nothing.
Penick believes his tendency to go overboard when starting exercise routines is the reason he’s never kept up the habit. “Last year I bought a Fitbit Zip and was walking two or three times a day to try and lose weight. It became a chore and I stopped after about three months. If I could start off a little more slowly I think I would keep it up,” he says. The 20-minute time limit helped him look forward to his workout, as opposed to feeling overwhelmed before he even began.
Assumptions that we have to spend a long time at the gym can keep us from going at all. Technology Editor Harry McCracken says that in the past he felt like he had to be in the gym for at least 45 minutes. This time limit meant more adjustment to his schedule, which was intimidating.
“The fact that I’ve been doing this for a non-intimidating 20 minutes has really helped,” McCracken says. “In fact, yesterday, I was going to the mall where my gym is to pick up some Japanese food for dinner–and I just went early and spent 20 minutes working out while I waited for the food to be ready.”
Pastore says the intimidation factor is why she doesn’t set intense parameters around her workout–she doesn’t need to run a certain distance or do a certain number of crunches or pushups. “I tell myself that as long as I do some amount of exercise, and get my heart rate up, it’s a success,” Pastore explains. “But then I find myself naturally motivated to run farther and try harder.”
Experts believe we’re setting ourselves up for failure when we leave acting on our new habits up to when we feel like it. The idea is that we need to set a routine and create cues that tell our brains, “it’s time to work out.”
I accomplished this by putting my bright pink sneakers right outside my bedroom door so each time I saw them before bed and when I woke up in the morning, I knew what time it was. Pastore also integrated “it’s time to exercise” cues by hanging her workout clothes where she could see them and by setting her alarm 20 minutes earlier. Another way to build it in, is to put your workout on your calendar and set daily reminders.
I noticed during this challenge that there were a ton of bad habits fighting against this good one, like hitting the snooze button continuously or wanting to plop down on the couch after work and reach for a glass of wine instead. In order for us to work good habits like exercise in to our lives, we found we have to first recognize and fight against those bad ones.
One bad habit Penick tried to eliminate was staying up way too late at night watching TV. “I always pay for it the next day, and during this exercise challenge I went to bed at a decent time each night,” he says.
McCracken experiences a similar phenomenon in the evening and says thinking of evenings as a time for activity makes the idea of hitting the gym quickly a logical part of the day.
Experts suggest using rewards as a way to motivate ourselves when taking on a new habit. For this habit challenge, though, the allure of treats after a workout seemed counterintuitive and unnecessary.
“I didn’t need to reward myself to stay motivated,” Pastore says. “Feeling great afterward was the reward.”
For the complete discussion about working out, take a look at the transcript from our live chat last Friday.
And don’t forget to check out this week’s habit challenge of quitting work while we’re ahead and join in our live chat this Friday at 11 a.m. ET.