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How To Make Exercise a HABIT

“What if I told you, there was something you could do right now, that would have an immediate positive benefit for your brain, including your mood and your focus…and that could last a long time, protecting your brain from conditions like depression and alzheimers?

What is this brain-altering phenomenon?


In her TED talk, The Brain Changing Effects of Exercise, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki outlines these and other positive effects exercise can have on our brain. I highly recommend this talk. You’ll learn about the neurological benefits of exercise, which include:

  • Improving your sense of well-being
  • Decreasing stress
  • Enhancing memory and cognitive processing.

If exercise has such life-changing neurological, psychological, and physical benefits, why is it so difficult to sustain an exercise habit?

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards

Exercise requires strategic time planning and physical exertion, which are not easy to come by. Whether we are willing to make the effort depends on what we expect as our reward. Intrinsic rewards are more long-lasting than extrinsic rewards, and are more likely to motivate us to keep exercising long-term.

When we are motivated by extrinsic rewards such as looking “good” in a swimsuit, or being the source of envy at a high school reunion, we are less likely to keep up the exercise habit after we’ve met our goal, or, worse yet, we’re more likely to give up before meeting the goal. When we engage in exercise mostly motivated by physique goals, we are less likely to keep up with it long term.

By contrast, we are more likely to make exercise a life-long habit when we engage in it for its intrinsic rewards, such as:

  • Feeling energized after an exercise session
  • The way we feel powerful in our bodies when we exercise
  • Being able to work out the stress of the day through movement
  • Feeling less anxious
  • Relieving anger through sweat
  • The sense of euphoria and happiness that lasts hours after a workout
  • Experiencing clarity of mind and enhanced creativity when exercising regularly

Connect With Intrinsic Rewards

Can you think of a time in your life when exercise has helped you head off anxiety before it got out of control, release anger or stress, or feel more optimistic about life? If you are wanting to make exercise a more regular habit, connect to these internal benefits you have experienced in the past when exercise was more routine.

If you have gotten out of an exercise habit, or if you have yet to start one, here are some tips to get you intrinsically motivated to move your body.

1. Think Like A Child

What is one way you used to move your body as a kid that brought you enjoyment? Dancing, shooting hoops, skateboarding, sports or romping on the playground? Think about some of your favorite ways that you moved your body.

  • If you loved dancing as a child, put on some music and groove or dance along with dance videos online.
  • Go to a park and shoot hoops, or join a pickup basketball game at a local community center
  • Get back on that skateboard (you’re never too old!)
  • Take a walk and feel the wind on your skin, the sun on your face, and feel good to be alive.
  • If you encounter physical limitations, what movements are within your limitations? Are there limitations that YOU are imposing on yourself?

2. Connect With The Feelings

 What feelings did you have when moving your body in carefree ways? Were you generally more carefree? Did you laugh more, twirl more, romp more? What would your life be like now if you had those feelings again regularly? What would you be doing differently if the things holding you back from having those feelings weren’t a problem (self-inhibition, limited time, low motivation, unhealthy habits).

3. Look At Yourself From The Outside In 

Consider how your exercise habit would benefit people around you and people you love.

  • How would your friends, co-workers, and family experience you differently if you took more opportunities to exercise?
  • What would they notice and appreciate about you when you are exercising regularly?
  • How would you act differently toward them if you were exercising more regularly?

4. Take One Small Step 

What would be the FIRST step toward creating a more movement-filled life.

  • Do you need to treat an injury?
  • Would you schedule it in your planner? Do you need to buy new walking shoes?
  • Make a playlist of exercise-motivating songs?

Rather than “All-orNothing” thinking, such as “I need to join a gym to exercise”, or “I need to lose weight to go swimming”, just do ONE SMALL THING to get started. Rather than setting a lofty goal, such as “Run a Half Marathon”, start with the first very basic steps, such as walking more, or even more basic, like putting together a neighborhood walking or jogging group.

Doing ONE SMALL THING each day that connects you with the child-like playful part of yourself will help you establish a habit of moving your body, which you can add to or expand over time.

5. Notice How You Feel 

Once you take the first step toward becoming a regular exerciser, however “small” that step was, you will reinforce that behavior by giving your brain the reward of noticing how good you feel, either during the exercise, or afterward.

  • If your body hurts and no part of the exercise session felt physically good, how did you feel emotionally?
  • Are you proud that you followed-through with what you set out to do?
  • Are you proud that you moved your body even though it was difficult?

Highlighting the positive  emotional effects of exercise can make it easier to want to exercise again.

Final Thoughts

Most people, when they decide they want to lose weight, first have the thought, “I really need to get exercising more.” Exercise is actually minimally effective for weight loss.

Exercise is still very important to overall health and wellness–just not in the way typically thought. It is important for increasing our motivation to make healthy choices, for enhancing positivity, and staving off depression. Think of exercise as fuel for the brain. It will help you feel motivated to live a healthier life.