Tell Yourself You Like Your Workout, You’ll Do It More

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Photo: Lars Borges/Getty Images

It’s a truism in fitness that the hardest part of working out is getting to the gym (or yoga studio, running path, or wherever else you may sweat). Thankfully, humans are easily manipulable, and if you manipulate yourself in the right way, you’ll be more likely to keep it up.

The latest mind hack comes from a study led by University of Colorado researcher Bethany Kwan, highlighted by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest. Kwan and her colleagues recruited 98 participants between the ages of 18 and 45, and asked them to run for 30 minutes on a treadmill near their “ventilatory threshold,” or the pace that puts them out of breath. A third of these participants were unwittingly manipulated to feel good about their workout, in that they were told that finishing such a jog leaves you feeling refreshed and relaxed.

Participants were then asked to follow the same running program for a week after the intervention. And as Jarrett explained, that’s where things got psychological:

… participants manipulated to expect the lab run to be more enjoyable showed greater increases in positive feelings through the run compared to the negatively manipulated participants; moreover, compared with control participants, they remembered the run as less fatiguing.

This last effect, though tentative, could be important because the more positively participants remembered the lab run, the more they tended to run through the ensuing week.

While a week is not long enough to assess long-term behavior change, this study is useful because it points to a few things you can rely on to become a fitter version of yourself.

The authors found, first of all, that their participants had a better time working out than they expected to — consonant with the finding that introverts actually like going to parties more than they say they will (read: don’t always trust your negative expectations). Second, this looks like a clear case of priming, where being told to expect an outcome makes it more likely for you to think that’s what happened. Third, these findings show how manipulable memory is: If you stepped into a run feeling good about it, then you recall it as being less tiring. All this underscores how strategically valuable a positive, hopeful outlook is: The better you feel about something, the more likely you are to do it. Attitude begets behavior.

Tell Yourself You Like Your Workout, You’ll Do It More