Photo Credit: Photl
Several weeks ago I caught a nasty head cold that left me absolutely exhausted. The sinus headaches made it difficult for me to concentrate on writing, and all I felt capable of doing (in between drinking copious bowls of soup and cups of green tea) was curling up on the couch and taking a nap. But what made it even worse was that I really wanted to work out, and I couldn’t! I was far too weak. As soon as I vanquished the cold, however, I couldn’t wait to start lifting weights again and going for long walks.
The funny thing is that I wasn’t always this motivated to exercise consistently every day. Especially in college, exercising often felt like a nuisance: just one more thing I had to squeeze into my already busy to-do list. What changed? How did exercising become a necessary part of my daily schedule, something I love doing and miss terribly if I skip a day? Today, I’m excited to share with you the tricks I’ve discovered for creating a truly addictive exercise routine.
The Importance of Exercising Both the Mind and Body
Most of my articles here at Inkwell Scholars focus on exercising the mind: how to study more efficiently, how to supercharge your memory, the importance of writing every day. However, while exercising the mind is necessary if you want to keep it sharp, exercising the body is critical as well. Thomas Jefferson once observed, “If the body be feeble, the mind will not be strong. The sovereign invigorator of the body is exercise.”
In other words, physical health is essential to mental health. In fact, physical exercise can actually make you smarter. One study reveals that older adults who engage in 40 minutes of brisk walking three times a week for one year show an increase in the size in an area of the brain called the hippocampus and also improved memory.
A sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, is damaging to the brain. An article in The New York Times reports, “A number of studies have shown that exercise can remodel the brain by prompting the creation of new brain cells and inducing other changes. Now it appears that inactivity, too, can remodel the brain, according to a notable new report.”
So how often do you need to exercise for optimal health? Another article from The New York Times quotes Klaus Gebel, a senior research fellow at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia: “Anyone who is physically capable of activity should try to ‘reach at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week and have around 20 to 30 minutes of that be vigorous activity.'”
My current exercise routine involves lifting weights two to three days a week. I use dumbbells to exercise my upper body. I concentrate on arms, biceps and triceps as well as chest and shoulders. I have read that many women are getting good results with kettle bells so I’m thinking of trying them out. I’m also going to start doing core as it is not one of my strong areas yet. Along with my weight lifting routine, I try to make time for at least thirty minutes of vigorous walking six days a week (it’s ok to take a day off to rest!).
No matter what your exercise routine looks like, it should include a walk of at least twenty minutes. A recent study by Cambridge University in England of over 334,000 European men and women found that a brisk walk of just twenty minutes per day could be enough to reduce an individual’s risk of early death. Walking also helps relieve stress and ease symptoms of depression. In other words, enjoying a vigorous daily walk leads to a longer, healthier life and that means more time to sharpen our minds, to hone our talents, to contribute to the world, and to spend with those we love.
5 Steps to Develop an Addictive Exercise Routine
Even when we know the benefits of exercise, it can be very difficult to take the steps necessary to change our sedentary lifestyles. The trick is to make exercise a necessary part of our daily schedule: something non-negotiable like brushing our teeth or eating dinner. But at the same time, we need to elevate it from being just another mundane task. We need to turn it into something we truly enjoy doing, like watching a favorite TV show or spending time on one of our favorite hobbies.
Here are the steps that worked for me to develop an addictive exercise routine.
1. Stay Consistent
When I made the goal to exercise consistently every week, I knew that the only way I was going to stick with it was if it became a habit. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, a habit is “a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.” Emphasis on “frequent repetition.” According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes about 66 days for an activity to become automatic, and anywhere from 18 days to 254 for it to become a habit.
But easier said than done, right? I could plan to exercise six days a week every single week this year, but it would be much more difficult to follow through. So I decided to make my goal a little bit less ambitious. I’d start small and just aim for those first 66 days. This dedication would build up momentum that would push me forward to developing a daily habit.
The takeaway: Just try to exercise consistently for a little over two months. Don’t give up if you miss a day. And don’t skip a day if there isn’t enough time to complete your entire exercise routine. Shorten it instead. Try to create triggers that will tell your brain it’s time to exercise: for example, exercising at the same time every afternoon or setting up a place in your house as your gym. Another idea is to sign up for something like a 5K run that will give you a definite goal to work towards, ensuring that you don’t skip your exercise routine.
2. Associate Exercising with Fun Activities
If exercising is something that you dread, you will certainly not want to exercise often. In order for exercise to become addictive, you need your brain to associate it as a positive activity, something that you cannot wait to do. But how to do that?
I thought about activities in my life that I really enjoyed but were consuming a lot of my free time. For example, I like to study foreign languages but finding time to watch a TV show or listen to a podcast in a foreign language can be tricky. Why not combine this activity with exercising? I always can’t wait to watch the next episode of the foreign language TV show, but if I only allowed myself to watch it while exercising, then I would be quite eager to make sure I didn’t skip an exercise session.
My family’s treadmill has a console where I can easily place my iPad to watch a TV show or read an eBook. But you could also use exercise time to take a break from the computer screen. In the spring and summer, I can’t wait to go for long walks outside around my neighborhood. I could listen to music or a podcast, but I actually like having time away from technology to think about the projects I’m working on and just ruminate over the day.
The takeaway: Combine your exercise routine with other fun activities so your brain sees exercise as something positive, something you look forward to every day.
3. Break Exercise Up into Short Segments
For those of us with busy lives it can be difficult to dedicate a solid block of thirty minutes or more each day to exercising. But the good thing is that we don’t have to. With walking, those thirty or forty minutes can be broken up across the day. In fact, according to a new study about exercise and high blood pressure, “breaking up the workout into three short sessions was significantly more effective than the single half-hour session.”
Breaking exercise up into short segments is an effective way to transform our sedentary lifestyles. Sitting for long periods of time (even if we end up exercising for thirty minutes at the end of the day) is extremely unhealthy. It is much better if we break up those long sitting sessions with small bouts of exercise.
The takeaway: Don’t shy away from exercising because you don’t think you have time for a thirty minute session. All you need to do is fit in ten minutes in the morning, then twenty minutes in the evening, or really any combination that works for you.
4. Give Yourself a Real Award
Motivation is often fed by the promise of a reward. We study hard for a test because we know it will result in a good grade. We work diligently at a job because we know we will be paid. Maybe when we were kids, our parents promised us dessert if we ate our vegetables. In his book The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning business reporter Charles Duhigg reveals the important connection between rewards and habit-creation:
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop…becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.
In the context of exercise, Duhigg explains,
Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push throughout the gym doors every day.
The takeaway: Whenever you are working towards a goal, think of things that you can reward yourself with if you are successful. These can be small things at the end of each productive session and a larger reward if you stay consistent over a series of weeks.
5. Find Work Out Buddies
I have found that one of the best ways to keep myself motivated about exercising every day is to surround myself with like-minded, positive-thinking people who are also eager to transform their lifestyle. My younger brothers lift weights and encourage me to join them. My mom and dad often invite me to go for walks with them around the neighborhood. Maybe you have friends or family members that you can work out with or who you can check in with each day to make sure you stay accountable to your goals.
The takeaway: Exercising is more fun in numbers. Someone who has more experience exercising than you can help you design an exercise routine that is suitable for your body type, health concerns, and lifestyle. Having someone to cheer you along will inspire you even on those days when you really don’t feel like getting off the couch.
I hope these tips help you find the inspiration to exercise each day! The bottom line is that exercising needs to become a must on your daily to-do list. No excuses. You have to make the time and then stick with it. But, of course, there are big returns: you will find yourself incredibly happier, healthier, and smarter as a result.