How to Hack Your Brain to Love Exercise (Yes, Really!)

Exercise can feel like torture. When you work out, you get sweaty, you can’t breathe, you stink, you ache, you’re weak and shaky and exhausted…. You’re well aware that regular exercise is absolutely crucial to good health, but with that much misery involved, how can anyone expect you to keep it up—let alone to ever enjoy it?

Fear not, friends! You can learn to love exercise, and it’s easier than you think: All it takes is an attitude adjustment. Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to “Suck it up, buttercup.” Today, we’re serving up the knowledge and practical advice you need to reprogram your attitude towards exercise so that you can stop dreading and feeling guilty about your workouts and start actually looking forward to them.

First things first: addressing the problem. Ever wonder why the thought of exercise always seems to fill you with dread? To find the answer, we’ll have to get neuroscientific.

Why You Still Hate Exercise (Even Though You Haven’t Done It in Years)

You may remember from science class that the brain is filled with special cells called neurons. Every time we

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have a thought, these neurons create connections with each other, which enables the brain to store memories. The more times you remember or think about something, the stronger the path between neurons becomes—sort of like how a path in the woods becomes clearer and less grassy the more times you walk over it.

When you think the same kinds of thoughts over and over again, you are actually forming and reinforcing neural pathways inside your brain that cause those thought patterns to become habitual. Once you’ve already carved out a clear path for a certain thought to form in response to a given stimulus, your brain begins to follow that path by default every time it encounters that stimulus.

This means that most of the time, your negative thoughts and feelings aren’t a choice so much as they are a reflex. If you’ve always thought of exercise as being difficult and unpleasant, you’ll continue to think that way until you make a conscious effort to retrain your brain.

So how do you do that?

Change Your Mind, Change Your Body

The strategy is simple: Fake it ‘til you make it. It sounds foolish, but it really works—for all its complexity and sophistication, the human mind is surprisingly easy to “hack.”

Start by paying attention to your own thoughts. What do you usually say to yourself in your own mind when you think about exercise? Is it something positive, or something negative? Chances are, it sounds something like this:

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“Ugh, I’ve put on a few pounds. I really should start working out to burn off all the food I’ve been pigging out on. If I don’t, I’ll never lose this weight. But I’m so tired after being at work all day, and exercising is really hard and uncomfortable. I’d rather just sit on the couch and watch TV.”

That’s not your conscious mind talking—that’s your subconscious mind, the part that’s operating on auto-pilot and following the neural pathway you’ve carved out over time. When you catch yourself reflexively thinking these thoughts, take back control by telling yourself to stop. Then consciously replace your negative mode of thinking with a more positive one, like this:

“My body is amazing! All day long my lungs, heart, kidneys, and the rest of my organs did their jobs perfectly, allowing me to do all the things I needed to do. Even though I feel a little tired, I owe it to my awesome body to spend some time working out. Besides, I really enjoy seeing what my body is capable of, and exercising now will help me be even more capable in the future.”

Thinking this way disassociates eating from guilt and exercise from body image. Instead of dwelling on how you look and feeling bad about what you shouldn’t be doing, you’re now choosing to focus on how you feel and what you should be doing.  

It will feel weird at first, sort of like you’re lying to yourself. But if you stick with it, you’ll create new neural pathways inside your brain and reprogram your default response to be more positive.

All it takes to overwrite your negative attitude towards exercise is patience, diligence, and a willingness to change. I’m speaking from personal experience when I say that once you get the ball rolling, it picks up speed and gets easier fast.

Dr. Fun-Run, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Exercise

When planning any new exercise program, start by learning your limits. Take the opportunity to get to know your body and explore its many capabilities. Can you do a push-up? That’s wonderful! Now can you do ten? No? Don’t worry—you’ll get there.

Everybody wants to be like Sylvester Stallone running up all those stairs in the Rocky movies, but that’s not a realistic goal to shoot for right off the bat. If you can only do one push-up, celebrate that push-up. Then do that push-up every day until you find you can do one more.

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Exercising with a partner is more fun than exercising alone!

Always honor your progress, even if it doesn’t seem that impressive. Remember: Your goal is to feel better and live longer, not to impress your significant other or your friends at work. Focusing on your own progress instead of comparing yourself to others will help finishing a workout feel more rewarding.

Enjoying your workout is all about feeling good while doing it, so do anything and everything you can to make the experience fun and engaging. Play your favorite music and wear workout clothes that make you feel both comfortable and cute. If you feel drawn to a certain piece of workout equipment, buy it—consider it an investment in your health. If you’re really into gadgets, try out a nifty piece of fitness technology, like a heart rate monitor, a pedometer, or a FitBit. If you love bath products, reward yourself after the workout with a long shower and some fragrant lotion or body powder. Make use of whatever you can think of that might serve to motivate you.

Not into structured workout routines? That’s totally okay. Do whatever you are into; ideally, exercise should feel like recreation rather than punishment or penance. You’d be surprised at how many things can count as exercise if you do them often enough and vigorously enough: Gardening, bowling, pacing while on the phone—even window-shopping at the mall can be good exercise if you keep up a steady pace!

Just make sure that you’re making use of all your major muscle groups and breathing harder than usual at least some of the time while exercising to reap the most health benefits.

Start With a Smile

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The body and the mind are so closely intertwined that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Pain and difficulty while exercising can influence your mood and cause you to have a bad attitude; likewise, having a bad attitude can make exercise feel harder and more painful than it really should be.

Fortunately, it’s possible to change your attitude by changing your experience, and vice versa. An easy way to start is by smiling when you think about exercise. It may sound crazy, but there’s evidence to support the theory that our facial expressions influence our behavior. Smiling a real smile, the kind that causes the corners of the eyes to crinkle, may cause the brain to release endorphins and other feel-good chemicals, thus triggering a better mood.

The takeaway: No matter how you feel physically or what kind of day you’ve had, you absolutely have control over your own attitude—and you absolutely can have a great time working out!

Let this information empower you rather than make you feel guilty. Go out into the world, be healthy and happy, and have a great day!

 

Looking for an easy way to improve your diet along with your attitude? Shop our online store, Foods4YourHealth, for cooking and baking products that will help you cut sodium, sugar, and fat without sacrificing flavor. Here’s 2YourHealth!

Author: Carla Spencer

Carla Spencer is a Registered Dietitian and founder of 2 Your Health. Her extensive career working with individuals with health challenges led her to create this site dedicated to helping people enjoy their lives while working to prevent or minimize the impact of kidney disease.

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1 Comment

  1. Wonderful post, Carla. May I add one secret I learned some 30+ years ago? Audiobooks! When you get engrossed in the story (fiction or non-fiction), you no longer notice the time/distance. Even better, you’ll often find yourself looking forward to exercise because it’s time to listen. Audible.com allows a free trial (you can keep the books) to determine if the experience works for you.

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