In an effort to begin or improve your current exercise regimen ask yourself the following question:
Is my desire to exercise rooted in fear of what I will otherwise become?
Hope for what I could be?
It would be normal and correct to think, “both,” They aren’t mutually exclusive. If you’re like most people, however, fear is your primary driver. This concept has been proven and replicated in many studies, most often in reference to the pain-pleasure principle and the loss aversion theory.
The pain-pleasure principle states all human action is taken to avoid pain or to gain pleasure and that our efforts to avoid pain are significantly greater than our efforts to gain pleasure. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, credited with the loss aversion theory, demonstrated losses (pain) are twice as powerful as equivalent gains (pleasure). That simple distinction is at the heart of creating change.
If you want to begin an exercise routine you have to develop a mental framework that leads you to believe the pain of not exercising is greater than the pleasure being sedentary. Habit expert and author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, advocates this concept in terms of making something “unattractive.” I recently applied this concept in my own life.
I live in Brooklyn, NY but work in Manhattan - which means I take the train home. My exposure to a variety of germs is inevitable. A simple measure of washing my hands when I get home can mitigate the risk of getting both my 9 month pregnant fiancé and coming son sick. In an effort to create this habit I set out to make not washing my hands as “unattractive” as possible. I began by first paying attention to how careless I was when on the subway and my inclination to touch everything. I then wondered how many people ride these trains daily, which is approximately 5-6 million. Then I wondered, “How often are these trains cleaned?” Appears to be every 8 to 10 weeks. Yikes. Ok, well, “Are there any studies demonstrating how dirty these trains are?” In fact there was an 18 month study performed and subsequently published in the Wall St Journal in which 67 bacterias associated with disease and infection were found. With all of this information, I couldn’t help but to be disgusted by my hands. They now feel different when I get off of the subway. Needless to say, it’s the first thing I now do when getting home.
The genius of this approach to creating a habit is that I in no way am relying on will power. I’m not forcing myself to do something with the hopes that after enough times it’ll become routine. I have to do it. The pain (in this case, disgust) of not doing it is far greater than the pleasure of plopping on my couch 10 seconds sooner. There is an additional element to this approach that makes it especially effective. I do it for me. I have a deeper love for my fiancé and coming son than I’ve ever seen or thought possible but in what started as an effort to keep them safer, is now not about avoiding pain for myself. It’s simply a matter of fact that, “I want to wash my hands so my family has less of chance of getting sick", is more complicated than, “I want to wash my hands.” It removes a layer of consideration.
So, what would it look like to applies these concepts to build an exercise habit?
A surface reading of this strategy would have you develop a negative self body image. This is of course not the case - an exercise habit at the cost of your mental health is counterproductive. Instead of focusing on body image, you want your fear to be oriented in health outcomes. For example, what if while sitting on the couch debating whether or not to exercise, you began to picture your arteries clogging up more and more the longer you sat there - you’d likely be compelled to get up! As another example, imagine blood flow through out your body slowing down, imagine it becoming so slow that your joints start to dry out and calcify and just the thought of using them is painful - as you read that description did you begin to wiggle your toes or fingers? If so, it’s having the desired effect.
There are infinite examples of the above and ultimately it’s up to you to explore what resonates most with you. Most importantly is you have to bring your full sense of concentration in imagining the pain (fear, disgust, anger) that will result from not moving. You have to make it real. If you get good enough at fearing the result of not exercising the only outcome is exercise.
Now that we’ve reviewed how to use fear to develop an exercise habit, what role does hope play? Just because fear is twice as powerful of a motivator doesn’t mean hope is powerless. In fact, as you begin to build momentum in your exercise habit you’ll find yourself relying less on fear as a catalyzer and more on what you hope to accomplish.
The same mental exercise used to create movement can be used to sustain movement. Again, I’d discourage anchoring hope to body image: six pack, 10% body fat, bigger butt, etc. Instead establish performance goals: hold a handstand for 1:00, deadlift 2 times your bodyweight, run a mile in less than 10:00, etc.
One of the must helpful steps is inundating yourself with information of all positive outcomes. Articles are great, but the consistent narrative of a book is more compelling. Finally, there is a reason transformation photos are a mainstay in fitness advertisements, they help you believe what is possible. This isn’t only to their advantage, it is also to yours. It gives you hope.
Use fear to start exercising, and hope to keep exercising.
“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”