May 25, 2018
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Rewards help build the exercise habit

Julien Tromeur | Getty Images/Hemera
Julien Tromeur | Getty Images/Hemera
By Erik Steele, Special to the BDN

Hell is probably a long row of treadmills on which the damned jog forever while forced to watch “Toddlers & Tiaras” on TV. So how have I kept myself jogging pretty regularly now for about 30 years despite not really enjoying the exercise?

The tendency to be an exemplar for eschewing exercise has required me to become a student of motivation. As a result, I’ve identified a lot of things that help convince me to overcome my instinct for inertia, put on my sweats (after sniffing them, of course, to make sure no crows will drop dead from the sky when I waft by) and get my acetabula moving on the asphalt. I also have identified things that suck the best of intentions right out of me. On days I get the balance right, I exercise. On the days I get it wrong, I don’t, and then get older and slacker a little faster.

On top of my list of motivators is exercising with someone. I’m so much more likely to exercise if someone wants to exercise with me that I’d jog with Jack the Ripper. I’m not the only one motivated by the company of other sweaters; there are pretty good data that most of us are more likely to exercise if we have someone to exercise with. It works so well I encourage patients trying to get motivated to start an exercise program to find an exercise buddy to start with them.

Related, anything added to exercise that helps make it fun makes it more likely you will do it. That seems obvious, but many of us start exercise programs based on activities we don’t like very much rather than thinking about how we could get a workout while doing something we enjoy. I’d rather microwave my tongue than just take a walk, but give me some golf clubs and a little white ball to whack toward a hole in the ground and I am thrilled to spend hours walking around a golf course.

Exercising with a friend is just one way to add value to time exercising, and thereby add to the odds you will exercise. Stick me on a treadmill looking at a blank wall for 50 minutes and I start hoping a tornado will blow through it to put me out of my misery. Put a TV with the Patriots playing football on that wall and I happily run like an overcaffeinated hamster. Playing a sport for exercise, solving life’s problems with your exercise buddy, listening to great music, reading a book while on the Stairmaster or imagining how jealous your ex will be at how good you look are but a few of the activities that can make the exercise a byproduct of doing something else of value to you.

The value-added approach works on those who might exercise with you, too. A walk holding your hand will (one hopes) have more appeal to your sweetie pie than just a walk. Tell your kids to shut off the TV, go outside and play, and they might do it. But tell them to join you in the yard with a football and your spouse and turn exercise into a sweaty family blast — that might be worth their getting off the couch.

You also have to identify what sucks out your motivation to exercise. Failure to maintain the habit of exercise does that to me; once I start missing a few days of exercise I get out of the habit and start missing more. Accumulating intent to be inert dooms me too; if I eat supper, settle on the couch, turn on the football game and open a cold beer, my comprehensive plan for total torpor torpedoes my exercise intentions every time. You have to exercise at a point in the day before exercise feels like giving up a lot of other things you want to do.

Most human beings need help motivating themselves to consistently do the right things. Finding what motivates and demotivates you is a little bit of personal science that may just identify that help. What are you waiting for? You are missing a lot more than just exercise.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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