Exercise didn’t concern Stone-Age humans. Hunting and hauling food was their power workout.
Prehistoric people didn’t worry about being motivated to work out. They got their cardio chasing dinner.
Fast forward a couple of million years. Humans no longer spend days tracking and hunting animals, then hauling their quarry home over miles of hostile terrain.
Now, with food delivered to our door on a moment’s notice, we’ve sorted one problem and created another. How do we make up for our lack of activity? Why is it so tough to catapult ourselves off the couch and into the gym?
It’s all about the M word.
Motivation. Lack of it prevents so many from getting the suggested 150 hours a week of exercise. How many fall short of that goal? A troubling three in four adults globally, according to the World Health Organization.
So, three out of four of us are lazy [bleeps]. At least we have lots of company.
A surefire way to get more active would be to return to the Stone Age. (say it with me: “Ooga booga”). We’d get our exercise while hunting, gathering and chasing down food. One drawback to consider, of course, is that a diet fortified with rodent meat might get tiresome.
As best we could determine, hunter-gatherers used 3,000 calories a day,” Dr. Boyd Eaton, an American radiologist whose work laid the foundation for the paleo diet, told the Los Angeles Times. “A sedentary American expends about 1,800 calories a day.”
Today’s farmers and construction workers get about the equivalent of a prehistoric workout. The only time I had a job involving anything close to that level of exercise was when I worked as a grip on a film. But the shoot lasted just a month. Other than that, I’ve struggled for years to maintain motivation to exercise.
Getting more people moving is critical to fighting preventable diseases, according to the WHO. I wish I could be more like the extreme achievers among us who somehow stay motivated to work out, sticking to a schedule, day in and day out, don’t you?
But, while we admire those people, we don’t exactly love them, do we? I mean, who can stand perfection or even near-perfection? On the other hand, they can be a source of motivation. Because, if they can do it, why can’t we?
Prof. Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque thinks we can. Being the enthusiastic researcher-teacher that he is, Kravitz has made a study of what motivates people to exercise.
A finding that will surprise no one is that being aware of the benefits of exercise isn’t enough to peel us off the BarcaLounger. According to Kravitz, aspiring gym rats are helped by:
- Getting positive feedback from from fitness-savvy people,
- Hanging out with folks who agree that exercise is is a good idea, and
- Receiving support from the people in our lives who are the most important to us.
It can be tough to notice improvement in our own fitness level, even after weeks of working out. But well designed before-and-after tests do not lie.
“Doing assessments and reporting improvements is critically important to encouraging a [person] to continue doing exercise,” Kravitz said in a research paper entitled, “Exercise Motivation: What Starts and Keeps People Exercising.”
I’ll second Kravitz on the benefits of testing. In sophomore year of college, I took a running class. “An easy credit,” I told myself. On day one, Coach White put us through a battery of simple fitness tests. The one I remember most was the Harvard step test.
Coach had each of us step and down on a single step for three minutes, sit down for one minute, then measure the pulse in our carotid artery. The sooner our heart rates recovered, the better shape we were in. My result was disappointing. I was surprised how much my aerobic fitness had deteriorated in a year and a half.
That in itself was a motivator.
After a couple of months of increasingly longer runs, we repeated the test. The class was jubilant. All of our recovery times showed solid improvement. That irrefutable evidence of progress was a motivator that kept me running well after the class had ended.
Another thing the running class taught me was the value of having a knowledgeable teacher. I met Kravitz years ago at a fitness conference in Dallas. I was there to get continuing-education credits for recertification as a group fitness instructor from the American Council on Exercise.
Kravitz taught a session on stretching, a subject I thought I knew a lot about. For me it was a highlight of the conference.
Part of Kravitz’s effectiveness was his obvious enthusiasm for teaching. Another was the depth of his knowledge. Every stretch was accompanied by a mini-lecture on why that stretch works and how to make it more effective.
Following Kravitz’s coaching, I have forever upped my own stretching and the way I teach it.
You don’t have to have a trainer to get feedback on your level of fitness. Another option is to do a self-assessment like this one from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.
The Mayo Clinic, headquartered in Rochester, Minn., has a different free fitness test online. It takes the measure of your fitness at the start and your progress as you continue to work out.
I first encountered the Harvard step test my sophomore year of college.
I signed up for a running class. “An easy credit,” I told myself. On day one, our professor, Coach White, put us through a handful of simple fitness tests. The one I remember most was the step test.
Coach had each of us step up and down on a single step for three minutes, sit down for one minute, then measure the pulse in our carotid artery. The sooner our heart rate went back down, the better shape we were in. My result was disappointing enough that I was surprised how badly my aerobic fitness had eroded after a year and a half of college. That in itself was a motivator.
After a semester of twice-weekly runs, we repeated the test. The results were a revelation. Our recovery times showed solid improvement. That irrefutable evidence of progress was a motivator that kept me running well after the class was over
Another way to stay motivated to work out is to work in the expectation of having fun. This may have been in the back of my mind when I certified with the American Council on Exercise. I picked group fitness over personal training as my speciality.
I decided I could help more people get fit by teaching group classes at a major fitness chain than by being a personal trainer. That and the fact that I enjoy moving to music. The fun of dance has often been a major motivator to get my butt to class.
The power of turning exercise into play cannot be underestimated as a motivator, according to Alex Scott, who played right-back for Arsenal, a British women’s soccer team, and represented Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics.
“It’s all about having fun,” Scott told the Daily Express. She reminisced about the good times she and her brother had played soccer (“football” in the UK) as kids. “It’s not all about preaching the health benefits. Finding the right activity for you is key.”
Choosing activities that combine fitness with fun turns out to be more important than you might think. Studies of what keeps people motivated to exercise show that it is strongly associated with feelings of success.
The resulting theory, which is is not without its critics, says you’re most likely to participate regularly in a fitness program and maintain over the long haul if your motivation comes from within.
While Alex Scott and the results of motivation studies advise us to run toward fun, psychologist Ryan Rhodes of the University of Victoria, expresses a similar sentiment but from the opposite angle. That is, run away from painful exercise.
“That hard workout that you had, where you got it done but it was very painful, is going to come back and haunt you next time. You’re not going to be that interested in pushing your body through that again,” Rhodes told Sheryl MacKay on CBC’s North by Northwest.
“Don’t push yourself so hard that it’s unpleasant, because you’ll remember that, and it can make a difference,” says Rhodes. He advises going easy on yourself when your exercise program feels tougher than anticipated. That will help you maintain the motivation that got you exercising in the first place.
Acknowledging the challenge of helping people stay motivated to exercise, Rhodes fantasizes about a pill providing the gains of exercise without the pains. “If we could wrap physical activity into a pill, it would probably the most-prescribed medication.”
Information on how to maintain motivation to work out is something millions of us could use. According to the World Health Organization, people age 18 to 64 need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-to-intense physical activity to stay healthy. Only one in four adults meets that standard. One in four.
The WHO statistics provide useful information. But they’re not enough, by themselves, to motivate most of us to work out. If your gym had a class in handstands, would that help? What about juggling? Both would fit right in at Trybe HK in Hong Kong.
“We call ourselves a movement space,” gymnast Teddy Lo, a co-founder of Trybe, told Lifestyle Asia. “We want to offer a space and community that fosters and encourages people to try new things.
It’s one thing to offer classes but another to offer the right mindset and intangible support for people to keep practicing and moving on their own.”
Mastering a new type of exercise might boost your motivation to get moving. Unusual classes are everywhere, if you look for them.
In Houston, belly dancing classes are not hard to find. The low-impact dance form helps people of all ages reduce stress and build confidence while strengthening core muscles. Pole dancing is popular, too, with its controlled spins, turns and pivots boosting strength and coordination.
Personally, I wouldn’t mind a class on backflips. As a gymnast in junior high, I never mastered that move. The failed effort dashed my Olympic hopes.
The problem may have been too little time for practice. I was learning to crochet and had multiple projects to finish. I remain disappointed over the lack of an Olympic event in crocheting.
The thrill of mastering a new movement like the backflip is something Lo can appreciate. “You learn a lot by pushing yourself into something you can’t do.”
Trip to Hong Kong, anyone? I’m feeling motivated already.
What makes motivation important enough to put under a microscope? You might ask Thomas Hong, a highschool student and speed skater who was part of the U.S. men’s 5,000-meter relay team that finished fifth overall at the Pyeongchang Games.
He says the most successful athletes aren’t necessarily the strongest or the fastest, They’re the ones who can stay motivated.
“A lot of times, before you physically give out, you give out mentally,” Hong told The Atlantic. “You know you’re going to be sore for awhile. You know how bad it’s going to hurt you.”
Especially relatable for fitness fans is the realistic attitude of U.S. Olympian Elana Meyers Taylor. She set a record with a third straight bobsled medal when her duo took home silver from PyeongChang. “If you can only get in 10 minutes on the bike,” she told Health magazine, “get in 10 minutes, and go from there. It will add up.”
U.S. Paralympic swimmer Bradley Snyder, who won gold in the 2012 summer games, has a response steeped in gratitude when asked what motivates him.
“I am not buried in Arlington. I am here in London competing, so I get lots of motivation from that,” Snyder said from the podium.
Exactly one year before, he had lost his sight in Afghanistan while serving in the Navy.
Snyder’s story reminds me of how I find both motivation and inspiration to work out when I hear the stories of athletes who excelled at their sport by refusing to give up despite life-altering handicaps.
As a reporter for United Press International in Boston, I was drafted by our sports editor to help cover the sprawling Boston Marathon. He assigned me to the wheelchair race.
Every wheelchair participant probably had a story capable of motivating even the most devotedly sedentary among us.
All I know is that it was my job to interview the winner. Crouched at the base of his rig, I was one of maybe a dozen reporters seeking his story. He described matter-of-factory the electrical accident that had cost him the use of his legs.
As we listened in silence, he told how he recovered his strength by following a grueling training schedule that developed his upper body to Mister-Universe levels. When the impromptu press conference ended I rushed back to the bureau and filed my story.
Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the wheelchair racer had accomplished in the face of a setback that would devastate most people. Then I thought about all the lame excuses I had made to avoid getting back into running.
The next day, I ran on the Esplanade path along the Charles River. A few weeks later, I joined a running club. Shortly after that, I ran my first road race.
My encounter with the wheelchair racer was not part of a scientific study. The evidence is anecdotal. But being near a kind of greatness did rearrange things in my head.
Suddenly, I had a different perspective. My former attitude, “I have no time to run today,” was transformed into, “Wow, I have legs. They work. I will run on them. Immediately.”
And if I see any game suitable for dinner, I’ll chase it for all it’s worth.