Motivation Tools: Think your way into exercise

When it comes to improving health, most of us would benefit from being more active.  But if the thought if taking up a new exercise regimen has you cringing and curling into a fetal position on the sofa, you might assume your hopes of getting more active are sunk.  Common sense suggests that we will do things we feel positive about more than things we don’t like.  But recent research suggests that just visiting your memories about exercise – positive or negative – will get you exercising more.


Earlier this year, researchers from University of New Hampshire published study results indicating that thinking about past exercise in a positive way resulted in more motivation to exercise in the future.   People who were asked to bring to mind positive memories of exercise were exercising more a week later.  While these people with positive memories exercised the most, those who were asked to bring to mind a negative memory still exercised more than a control group of people who were not asked to recall exercise experiences at all (Biondolillo and Pillemer, 2014).

So when it comes to exercising more, thinking about previous exercise is better than not, but thinking about it positively is the best of all.  Still, developing positive memories of exercise can pose a challenge for quite a few sweat-a-phobics out there.  What to do if you want to capitalize on the ‘good memory’ phenomenon to boost your motivation:

1) Adjust expectations about success – For some people, a lack of positive memories can be related to what counts as success and what counts as a failure.  Being too limited in a definition of success can lead to compiling a memory full of examples of failure which amounts to a catalogue of negative memories about us and exercise.  While it’s useful to bear in mind the aspects of your behavior or fitness you’d like to improve, it’s only fair to also give credit for what you’ve done well.  Maybe you didn’t do as much as you’d have liked.  Maybe you felt worse than expected.  Maybe you slowed down half way through.  But if you tried, if you attempted, if you just plain turned up – there’s something to give yourself congratulations for.  It’s not big-headed to say, ‘Well done, me!’    Rather, it’s an essential skill to maintain motivation.  Acknowledge your effort and small achievements.  Even if failure is a factor, taking a valuable lesson from when things don’t go well will help you to plan for success in the future.


2) Be an active memory-maker –  If positive memories don’t figure much into your thinking about exercise, it may not mean that aren’t any to be found.  It might just mean you have been biased into noticing the negative.  Exercise is hard, and often without actively searching for the positive, it can be difficult to find.  Start keeping an exercise memory diary.  In a notebook, make three columns – one for the workout/physical activity, one each for positive and negative memories.  As soon as possible after each exercise session, record what you did and two memories from it.   Allow yourself to write one negative memory, but challenge yourself to write at least one positive memory, also.  Over time, you can start to notice more positive memories are possible.

3)Fight negative self-evaluations –  If you see the world through the lens of ‘I’m no good’, everything you see will reinforce that perspective, especially when you approach new challenges.  Try to be realistic with yourself.  Even previous failures cannot determine what you are capable of, so don’t judge yourself too harshly for the past or current difficulties.


4) When all else fails- be annoyed, be upset, just don’t let it fade from your attention.  There are stages leading up to making a change, and these stages are often charcterised by divided feelings about the change.  We have an image of ourselves as fairly certain of what we want, but in reality making changes and wanting to achieve the results a change would bring are different.  We might feel a desperate desire to lose weight, but the everyday choices this would require might feel difficult.  Recall that the research indicated that people who induced a negative memory of exercise still exercised more in the following week than those who were not asked to remember exercise at all.  So if you’re having an internal battle with about whether or not to exercise, it’s still better than banishing the thought from your mind altogether.


Mathew J. Biondolillo, David B. Pillemer.Using memories to motivate future behaviour: An experimental exercise intervention. Memory.  2014.

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