The key to sticking with exercise long term is to do it for the right reasons. If you keep up a fitness regime because you like it, because it makes you feel good now, you’re way more likely to keep at it. If, on the other hand, you concern yourself with the future benefits of exercise, you won’t stay motivated.
It sounds simple, and it is, although this hasn’t kept Michelle Segar of the University of Michigan from writing an entire book about it. We all instinctively know that if we love something, we can’t wait to get started. Golf lovers will get up early on weekends, amateur guitarists might stare longingly at the guitar hanging on their office wall while they tap on their computer keyboard. We don’t have to persuade ourselves to do these things. In fact, the opposite is true: it’s hard to stop.
The same is true of exercise. Ask any one of your running-addict friends, or bike-nut coworkers why they do it and they’ll tell you that it calms them, or it gives them energy, or that they just love doing it.
The trick, then, to getting fit is not to worry about the whole getting fit part. This will stop you viewing exercise as a chore. Goals like “losing weight,” or “becoming healthier,” says Segar, will actually demotivate you. In a study carried out several years ago, she found that “The vast majority of the participants whose goals were weight loss and better health spent the least amount of time exercising overall.”
Why? “Human beings, it turns out, are hardwired to choose immediate gratification over long-term benefits,” she writes, and willpower isn’t enough to overcome this.
The trick, then, is to focus on the short-term benefits, and use our weakness for immediate gratification to our advantage. One option could be choosing a sport you actually enjoy, or focusing on how great you’ll feel after a run. This even works for dieting. Learn to enjoy the feeling you get after a light lunch, or the buzz that comes from eating mostly fruits and veggies instead of weighing yourself down with meat and pasta.
It’s not an easy trick, to be sure, but it’s a lot easier than relying on your pathetic willpower, or motivating yourself with the promise of future benefits that will never appear.