Force yourself to exercise? Perhaps there are better ways to boost motivation

Exercise is important whether you like it or not. It increases blood pumping, strengthens muscles and releases feel-good hormones.

It can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, bone disease and depression. It can improve your sleep and promote healthy aging.

And that can be fun, right?

Well for some, exercise is just a means to an end. For others, they have to enjoy exercising in order to do it in the first place.

So what are the benefits of enjoying exercise? Is it worth looking for the right fitness, to stay in shape?

Having fun can help with consistency

Getting the most out of any exercise you choose requires consistency.

Government guidelines encourage adults to be active most days, preferably every day.

They suggest at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity activity each week, or at least 1.25 hours of vigorous activity each week.

As of 2022, over three in 10 adults aged 18 to 64 did not meet these guidelines.

And it only got worse with age, with 47 percent of men and 53 percent of women 65 and older not getting enough physical activity.


But knowing the government’s guidelines and the health reasons behind them may not be enough to stay on track.

Movement researcher Matthew Burke says that we assume that informing people about the benefits of physical activity will be enough to motivate them to be more physically active.

“But what we’re learning is that people are not entirely rational,” says Dr. Burke.

“What’s potentially more important is how they feel while being physically active.”

Exercising with friends can also add to the enjoyment.(Getty Images: Raquel Arocena Torres)

Research supports this study, which showed that enjoyment was a better predictor of persistence than motivation in the absence of enjoyment.

This means that motivators, such as getting stronger or losing weight, were not as successful as simply exercising for fun.

Another US study found that even people with heart failure, although highly motivated to improve their physical health, were less likely to exercise if they did not enjoy it.

As Dr. Bourke points out, “If you look forward to it, you’ll keep doing it.”

An elderly couple (65-69 years old) hikes together along the coastal path

Being outdoors can increase the cognitive benefits of exercise.(Getty Images: Alistair Berg)

Of course, enjoyment doesn’t just happen out of nowhere, there are reasons why you might enjoy one exercise over another.

Being good at what you do can help. So, physical effort, social interaction and new experiences.

In his research, Dr. Bourke also found that being outdoors contributes to a better mood after a workout.

Getting more from less

But what if you’re out and about, trying something new, making friends, working and doing well, and you still don’t feel like working out?

Well, there are ways to spend less time exercising overall while still getting the benefits of a longer workout. You’ll just have to sweat more.

While consistency still counts, high-intensity training can burn the same amount of energy in less time than moderate-intensity training.

Group of people in plank position, lifting dumbbells one arm at a time.

High intensity training can give you the same benefits in less time overall.(Getty Images: PeopleImages)

In one case, despite spending 250 minutes less on exercise per week, people who did high-intensity training had “similar or greater health and performance benefits.”

In another study, systolic blood pressure and heart rate variability improved within eight, 20-minute sessions of high-intensity cycling.

So if you don’t like any form of exercise, and would rather spend less time doing it, shorter but sweatier workouts might be the way to go.

(If you find you enjoy HIIT, be careful. Overdoing it with intense exercise has its downsides, such as overuse injuries and stress hangovers from elevated cortisol levels.)

Forming habits

While enjoyment makes it easier to form an exercise habit, it’s possible to keep things consistent without the fun factor.

The art of habit formation is well established.

One of the first habits we learn is to wash our hands after going to the toilet. Washing our hands is a habit, and using the toilet is a ‘contextual cue’.

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