4 Hacks To Get Your Brain To Genuinely Love Exercise, From A Psychiatrist
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Exercise nurtures the brain—we likely don't need to convince you of the many, many mental health benefits of a regular workout routine. But just in case you need some data: "People who do even 20 to 30 minutes of running per day say that their mood improves1 short and long term," Samantha Boardman, M.D., tells us on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. The problem is? It's difficult to get yourself in the exercising mood!
"You might be really motivated in the morning to go for a run at five in the afternoon, but when five o'clock rolls around, you're not feeling it at all," Boardman explains (can you relate?). However, she shares a few science-backed ways to get your brain on board—here are her go-to tips to get moving:
Leave your sneakers by the door.
Don't ignore the power of subliminal messaging: "Make the behavior you want easier," says Boardman. "If you want to go for a run, [leave] your sneakers out the night before, have your gym bag packed, maybe even wear a [jogging bra] that day if you're planning to go to the gym."
As many health experts will tell you, convenience is one of the most important elements of healthy habits—that goes for both nutrition (read: meal prep!) and exercise.
According to Boardman, positive rewards can help you to stick to healthy habits. She references research on "temptation bundling," a term coined by behavioral scientist Katy Milkman, Ph.D., where you "bundle" an indulgence with a less enjoyable task. In Milkman's 2014 study, researchers gave participants audiobooks they wanted to listen to, but they could only listen to them while working out; as a result, the participants attended the gym way more frequently2.
"If there's something that you really love doing—maybe you love listening to the mindbodygreen podcast—only let yourself do it when you're running," Boardman explains. "That's a pretty consistent way to get people to show up and do a behavior that they want to do but just can't get over that hump."
Work out with friends.
Allow Boardman to explain the "flake factor": When you have a verbal commitment with another to head to the gym and go for a run, you're way more likely to attend. "You don't want to flake on them, so you're much more likely to succeed," she notes. In fact, one 2015 study found that finding a new exercise companion increased the amount of exercise people took—with an even bigger increase if that new partner was emotionally supportive.
"You're getting this cardiovascular workout, you're chatting, you're engaging your brain in conversation. That's the hat trick of happiness right there," says Boardman. "So if you can [exercise] in the company of another person, you're going to get more health benefits from it—and it's going to be a whole lot more fun."
Give yourself freedom.
Yes, workout schedules can help you hold yourself accountable, but being too rigid can actually backfire. "When you have an expectation that's super high, like, I'm going to go to the gym five or six days a week, and you don't make it by Tuesday, you think that week is ruined," says Boardman. "You'll sort of throw it away."
In another 2020 study led by Milkman, researchers found that routine incentives (i.e., paying participants each time they visit the gym within a planned, daily two-hour window) actually resulted in fewer gym visits than flexible incentives (i.e., paying participants each day they visit the gym, regardless of timing). The theory is that when people miss that two-hour window, they think they've already failed—so they throw in the towel and don't head to the gym at all.
"Having a plan is important, but also [be prepared that] it might get pushed back 15 or 20 minutes, or maybe you're only going to be able to run for 25 minutes today," says Boardman. "Be a little bit more forgiving about it."
Exercise has many brain-healthy benefits, but it may take some brain hacks to get yourself in the workout mindset. No fear: Boardman's tips are tried and tested and backed by science to help you feel motivated.