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What Is the Best Motivator for Exercise?

Previous research has said that the best motivator for exercise is the desire for good health, but new studies point to an even better motivator.

“Rethink exercise as a source of immediate rewards” by Jane Brody (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 7/28/15, E28) focuses on research by psychologist Michelle Segar who directs the Sport Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. Her studies and others conclude that, “Though it seems counterintuitive…people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising,” but that “immediate rewards that enhance daily life—more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity to connect with friends and family—offer far more motivation.”

This conclusion makes sense because, let’s face it, most of us want instant gratification. It’s not enough to know that our blood test a few months from now will show that our HDL, LDL and triglycerides will be in a healthier range or that we’re helping to prevent heart disease, stroke or some cancers through exercise. Many folks are “show me the money now” people, wanting a payoff right after taking an action.

Forget boring routines. Segar says that for some folks, “the neuroscience of reward has shown that” an activity chosen because it feels right in the moment (rather than being planned way ahead) can foster and reinforce positive feelings about being active.” One caveat: Most of us have busy enough lives that we do better scheduling in activity ahead of time. And speaking of busy, Segar maintains that “people who make physical activity a priority don’t necessarily have more time than others. Rather, they make sure to schedule time for it because they know it enhances their performance and the quality of their daily lives.”

Segar reminds us of what she calls “the paradox of self-care: The more energy you give to caring for yourself, the more energy you have for everything else.” Sadly—and this is key—those who put others first seem to have very little energy left over to care for themselves. I see this time and time again in my practice. Remember, there is no best way to stay active. Listen to your body and notice how it feels when you’re active and when you’re not. Pay attention to what activities make your body feel great and those which don’t. We’re all unique, so tune into what makes your body feel alive and energized and keep on doing it. Listen to your body and it will tell you what it wants.