- “I will try harder, and make it next time.”
- “I will start exercising again…on Monday.”
- “I will skip no workouts this time.”
- “My new year’s resolution is to start a fitness program and keep it.”
We all want to be healthy, and none of us want to die early. Yet, we act totally irrationally.
Even though we claim to want to be healthier, and we know what we should do (like eating better, and exercising more), we don’t practice what we preach.
Actually, most people start exercising only to quit after a while: 80% of people admit that they have started and quit an exercise program in the past due to lack of time or motivation.
But why do people embark on a journey only to…change their minds later?
This is like deciding to visit your friend Ken, and once on the road, changing your mind and going to work instead.
Makes absolutely no sense right?
People’s behavior seems even more absurd, when you take into account a few benefits of even small amounts of exercise:
Yet even though people’s actions prove every-day that behavior is irrational, people still try to tackle behavioral issues with rational thought.
We all know that most bogus claims like the above bring…more of the same: People who start exercising, only to quit after a while.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Hmm…so if rational thought does not work, then what should people do to create exercise habits?
It may sound weird but…
To address an issue that makes no sense, you have to employ a method that makes no sense.
Are you baffled? I will clear this up right away!
[For simplicity reasons, I will be dividing the brain into two parts: the conscious and the unconscious one. The conscious part rules rational thought, while the unconscious one rules emotions, memories, and habits.]
Exercising regularly in the long-run is controlled by your unconscious mind. Your unconscious mind is the lord of habits. Contrary, resolutions and decisions are controlled by your conscious mind. That’s why you cannot, e.g., tell yourself “You will be exercising every day for the rest of the year" and actually make it happen, just like that. This is your conscious mind thinking - has no effect on your unconscious! That’s why people quit exercising (even though they consciously would like to keep going).
However, exercising regularly in the short-run CAN be controlled by your conscious mind. This is why motivating yourself just once to go to the gym works. E.g., you can talk yourself into going to the gym or yoga, today. However, motivating yourself to go to the gym or yoga regularly for 3 months doesn’t work through the conscious mind – it’s in the habit realm and is controlled by the unconscious.
Let me say that again.
Most people try to keep exercising by using rational thinking (e.g., thinking of the benefits of exercise, or making New Year’s Resolutions). However, even though rational thinking may work in the short-run, it does not work in the long-run: it addresses your conscious mind but not your unconscious one! And as said before…
The unconscious mind is the lord of habits.
The unconscious mind is the boss.
The unconscious mind is the one that needs to be trained.
In order to make exercise part of your every-day life you may need to do things that…please the boss. Things that may NOT make sense for your conscious mind, but do make sense for your unconscious one.
Start with ridiculously baby steps. That may involve doing 2 pushups every day. Or, 2 squats. Or, 2 yoga poses. But no more than that. Such steps are so easy that don't start the fight-or-flight response.
The amygdala (part of your unconscious) unleashes the fight-or-flight response. This response is meant to protect you from danger, and would work great if, e.g., you had a dangerous lion in front of you. However, when it comes to creating new healthy habits for ourselves it can actually be harmful.
Once the flight-or-fight switch is on, activity in other parts of your brain (like your conscious mind) that control rational thinking and creativity slows down or just…stops.
Oops, rational thinking does not work anymore!!!!
That’s why you should avoid waking up the amygdala, by starting with ridiculously easy steps that don’t invoke any fear.
By now you conscious mind is already rebelling against this idea: "This is too small", "I don't see how this will give me any exercise benefits at all". As I said before, your exercise practice does not need to make sense to your conscious mind! Rational thinking does NOT work!
Once you find your ridiculous small step, you now need to tie it with an activity that you do every day. For example: waking up in the morning, brushing teeth, eating lunch, putting kids to bed, showering, reading a book in bed before sleep, etc. This activity is the "anchor".
By now you should have a nice sequence: E.g., “I will do 2 pushups after I wash my face in the morning”.
Now you are ready to start doing! Do your new activity for 7 days. The "anchor" serves you so that it makes it easier to you to make exercise a habit.
If you forget to do your new activity, then don't worry. Just do it when you remember it, and then try to stick to the plan in the following day.
After about one week you will have made this ridiculously small step a habit. Keep going and you will soon (maybe a month or two months?) find yourself adding larger segments of exercise (e.g., 10-20 min) throughout your week.
Oops, you just helped yourself decrease your heart disease risk by 40% & extend your life by 3 years!
This process works because it teaches your unconscious brain that exercising is not scary. Once your unconscious feels comfortable with the idea of exercise, then you are free to exercise as much as you want! The fight-or-flight response will be less and less activated.
Plus, these ridiculously small steps have already built new pathways in your brain that are now "asking for exercise".
Boom, congratulations! Your mind is now asking for exercise. It’s not just that you have avoided waking up the amygdala, it’s also that exercise becomes more and more automatic for you…It’s a habit!
Isn’t that awesome?
Do you understand the long-tern benefits this process has had on your health? The benefits are not limited to living longer and decreasing the heart attack risk. It’s also about decreasing other risks, like osteoporosis and dementia. In the end, it’s about improving the quality of life you are living, right now: better sleep, better mood, and enjoyment of more energy every day!
And it all happened because you started doing 2 pushups a day…