Using simple, evidence-based techniques you can help clients transform how they think about, and undertake, exercise.
‘I recently started a yoga and meditation habit because I knew that I would not be able to get myself to get up and exercise. However, I didn’t realise that I had also begun to look at yoga as a bit of a chore, even though it was an easygoing, ten-minute video.’
This email from Eric, who had just started reading my book No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, zeroed in on a common problem for people who want to exercise: it feels like work. And even though Eric was actively seeking wellbeing, he was finding it hard to keep moving.
For fitness professionals, the holy grail of helping clients find and sustain their enjoyment of, and enthusiasm for, exercise often seems out of reach. In my own work, both as a behavioural sustainability researcher and a motivational fitness coach, I often hear the complaint that exercise ‘feels like a chore’ – or worse, ‘I hate exercise but I know I should do it.’ Our challenge is to help our clients to transform that chore into a gift, and to then sustain that feeling of enjoyment over a lifetime.
There are a few key ways in which we can do this.
1. Listening to our body’s messages
My first question to clients is why they started their failed or failing fitness program. Almost always, their answer has to do with a doctor’s prescription to ‘lose weight’ or for ‘health’, or because they know it will be ‘good’ for them.
For Eric, this simple question about his ‘why’ for exercise triggered a progressive transformation in his thinking: ‘It dawned on me that I should start looking at it as something fun rather than something necessary.’ And with that new way to frame his routine, everything changed:
‘When I started the yoga video as usual, I started dancing a bit to the background dance track that the video plays before the instructor starts speaking. Then I remembered just how much I love to dance to fun music. I ended up dancing for a straight hour to various pop and hip-hop songs.’
Intuitively, Eric chose to follow his body’s real inclinations rather than the video’s instructions. This transformed everything.
Our bodies are always communicating with us, but most messages are simply screened out by the noise of daily life. We quickly learn to ignore the rest of the messages in the name of expediency (our body aches and slow brains tell us that we’re tired, but we need to keep working so we put off rest until later). When Eric paid attention to his body’s message to dance – even though rationally he felt on some level that he ‘should’ be doing yoga – it paid off big time.
2. Doing what feels good
Eric chose an optimal motivator when he did what he loved. This is something we already know intuitively, but is worth saying again out loud: we naturally want to do what feels good and avoid what feels bad. This seems like a no-brainer when it’s about food or sex, but when it comes to exercise many people feel that ‘no pain, no gain’ is an unbreakable rule. Yet in terms of sustainability, this old mantra does not work to keep people engaged with exercise.
When clients force their bodies to do something they don’t want to do (an intense forty-minute workout after a full day at the office, for example), the body sends a very different message: This is a chore that I don’t want to do! If they ignore their body’s ‘no’ messages over and over again in their attempt to ‘stick to the program’, they are still training – but they are training their body and brain to disdain movement. For most, this leads to only short-term behaviour change and poor results.
A series of published studies wonderfully titled ‘Work or Fun? How Task Construal and Completion Influence Regulatory Behavior’ (Laran & Janiszewski, 2010) illuminates the power of this distinction. The researchers found that framing a behaviour as an obligation made the experience of engaging in the target behaviour depleting. Because it felt like a chore, participants had more difficulty exerting self-control and finishing the task. Yet when the exact same behaviour was framed as an opportunity to have fun, completing the behaviour was energising and subsequent self-control was much easier.
So, helping your clients make sure that physical activity feels good goes beyond a pleasure-based experience to one that fosters future self-control. Talk about a win-win-win!
3. Rediscovering the fun, joyful movement of childhood
As Eric danced joyfully, he had a sudden realisation: he had forgotten that in high school he used to love to dance. ‘Why I had forgotten that I used to love to dance and that it would make a good, joyful exercise routine is hard to grasp.’
Eric’s memory hints at a way to help your clients identify physical activities that can feel good to do. Many of the people I’ve coached over the years have rediscovered fun and joyful movement when they were prompted to recall what they enjoyed doing as kids.
Eric ended his email with this beautifully phrased and compelling truth: ‘When we grow up, we begin to lose touch with our childlike selves …we tend to forget that our body has an enormous intelligence of its own, one that exceeds the mind in knowing what would best promote its own health, and that yielding to the body’s natural propensity towards joyful and enthusiastic movement is much more productive than resisting its inclinations and dictating what it should do and look like.’
4. Accepting that autonomy trumps control
Eric’s astute comment also reflects an evidence-based principle from self-determination theory (SDT): autonomy (personal choice) trumps outside control. In other words, I want to wins out over I should. When we freely choose the type of movement we do – choosing activities we want to do instead of the ones we think we should do – we look forward to exercising and sustain that feeling over time. Think of it this way: how would you feel about sex if you did it in ways that you were told you ‘should’ instead of how you actually want to do it?
SDT research consistently shows support for a positive relationship between autonomous forms of motivation and ongoing physical activity. It also finds that controlled forms of motivation (determined or prescribed by others) don’t work as consistently well. When clients feel that their choices are driving their decision to dance or walk or run, they will have higher-quality motivation and feel energised by doing it. Once Eric took ownership over the specific physical activities he did and how he did them, joy ensued – and so did continued motivation.
From a chore to a gift: first steps
Eric’s story reflects the process of transforming exercise from a chore into a gift. He stumbled on this idea organically, but it’s a scientifically supported system with published results you can learn to use. Achieving this shift with clients is actually easy when you follow the step-by-step process described in the Meaning and Awareness sections of No Sweat.
To learn how you score in these areas, and understand how to use these principles when working with your clients, take the free No Sweat Motivation Quiz at michellesegar.com. Ask yourself where you can better integrate these science-based ideas into your work, and then consider trying some ‘small experiments’: you’ll quickly see the positive ways that your clients start responding.
Michelle Segar, PhD is a motivation scientist and author of the critically acclaimed No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. A sought-after keynote speaker and consultant to global fitness, health, and wellness organisations including Adidas and Anytime Fitness, she trains professionals to create sustainable behavioural change in others. michellesegar.com