I’m sweaty, exhausted, winded, my butt hurts, and I feel great!: Mood and the motivation to exercise

Last night was my first indoor cycling class on the trainer.

After a few weeks of not riding much except for commuting, it was 90 minutes of pretty hard work. Spin ups, high cadence efforts, big gear low cadence efforts, ending with sprints. Hard work and then back to Zone 2. By the end it was getting hard to reclaim Zone 2. And by the end I was tired and sweaty and winded. Also, a bit woozy and hungry and light headed. Once again I’d forgotten to eat!

On the way in I carry my bike, my trainer, my gym bag, and my briefcase all in one trip. It’s almost never one trip on the way out.

But on the way out, I caught I glimpse of my face in the mirror. Big goofy grin! I felt great.

I was reminded of something a friend said last week after her boxing class. “I should remember how good this makes me feel.” Agreed. That feeling is often what gets me out the door.

I’m teaching sports ethics this semester and yesterday we were chatting about the benefits of working out. Are they all instrumental, that is good because of what it gets you, or does exercise have its own rewards? Is it intrinsically good?

One way to test your intuitions about this is to see whether you’d be excited by a pill that gave you all the health benefits of exercise but without actually leaving the bed. My students, many of them serious athletes, were divided. Some days, yes, of course. Some workouts, yes, of course. But all of the exercise, all of the time? No. (Fit and Feminist blogged about that last year, when the news was full of the possibility of such a pill. See If you could have good health from a pill…  and my response is here.)

It turns out that those who think of exercise in terms of immediate benefits, how it makes us feel, do much better in terms of motivation that works, than those who think of exercise in terms of health and fitness goals. My students all agreed that exercise feels great. They thought if there was a recreational drug that gave you that feeling with no ill health effects they’d be tempted to take it.  Thinking about the feeling is a very effective motivator.

See Rethinking Exercise as a Source of Immediate Rewards in the New York Times.

“Dr. Segar, a psychologist who specializes in helping people adopt and maintain regular exercise habits, is the author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.” Her research has shown that even people who say they hate to exercise or have repeatedly fallen off the exercise wagon can learn to enjoy it and stick with it.

Though it seems counterintuitive, studies have shownthat people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising. That is true even for older adults, a study of 335 men and women ages 60 to 95 showed.

Rather, 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, Dr. Segar and others have found.”

So get out there because it makes you happy, because you’ll feel less stressed after, and you’ll get off the bike grinning and set your health and fitness goals on the back burner. You’ll do better meeting those goals by going at them indirectly.

I often talk about this to my students in Introduction to Ethics when we discussion the paradox of hedonism, according to which aiming at happiness isn’t a good strategy for obtaining happiness. “The impulse towards pleasure can be self-defeating. We fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them. This is what Sidgwick (The Methods of Ethics) called the paradox of hedonism.” See more here.

It’s not an unfamiliar idea. If you care most about getting A’s, the worst way to do that is to focus all the time on getting A’s You’ll do better by throwing yourself into a subject and coming to love it, even if it really is your overarching goal to get A’s.

When it comes to exercise, it’s the way it makes you feel that works best to get you out the door.


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