Use This Psychological Trick to Train Your Brain into Loving Exercise

Using science to make healthy choices.

Zulie Rane
Oct 29, 2018 · 4 min read

Not many people are lucky enough to naturally love doing exercise. Most of know it’s healthy, so we suffer through it, like we do any other chore. But we don’t enjoy it.

Evolutionarily, we depended on being able to run, lift, and swim. You’d think we should love it, the way we do eating a good meal, or spending time with loved ones, both of which confer an evolutionary advantage.

So why don’t we?


Physically, our bodies are loaded with features that make us good at running. We have heads that stay still when we run, short toes that need less energy to stabilize, the Achilles tendon built to store and release energy as we run.

However, there’s probably selection pressure against what our brains deem to be unnecessary exercise. When calories are scarce, like they were for the majority of our evolutionary history, anyone burning additional body mass was at a disadvantage.

…there was probably selection to help people avoid needless exercise when they could. Some hunter-gatherers had diets of about 2,200 calories a day. When your energy intake is that low, you can’t afford to go for a jog just for fun. — Daniel Lieberman, evolutionary biologist of Harvard.

So our bodies are perfect for it. But we still hate running. And there’s no way to force yourself to like it.

Or so I used to think.


This morning, I popped in my headphones, hopped into my running shoes, and jogged out the door. I could have taken the bus, but I was excited to go for my morning run to work, and excited for the next episode of my latest podcast.

This is coming from someone who has never liked to voluntarily exercise.

But there I was, ponytail swinging and legs pumping, getting some morning fresh air and loving it.

This is my experience with what scientists call temptation bundling: pairing a “want” behavior with a “should” behavior.

In this case, the “want” is to listen to my podcast. The “should” is the running.

Why this immediate reward work to encourage us to make healthier choices?

By rewarding a delayed gratification activity such as going to the gym, healthy eating, or even doing taxes, with an immediate gratification “guilty pleasure,” which can be binging a trashy Netflix show, or a funny podcast, our brains learn to associate the immediate pleasure with the behavior we should be doing.


How can you do this at home?

For me, I found that listening to a story-based podcast, like My Dad Wrote a Porno, or a really gripping audiobook, like The Hunger Games or Gone Girl while running tricked my brain into thinking that by doing the exercise, I would get an immediate, stimulating reward.

For yourself, think about what your “should” behaviors are. Do you want to get better at saving money? Maybe you want to commit to cleaning the house for half an hour each day.

Then pick what your “want” behaviors. Is it drinking a really nice beverage? Do you love getting pedicures?

The last step is to simply do them at the same time. Listen to your podcast while you clean the house. Drink an expensive glass of Chardonnay as you file your tax return.

Personally, I found that wasn’t enough — I had to restrict my access to the “guilty pleasure.” I only listen to that particularly funny podcast when I jog in to work — any other time, I listen to motivational, self-improvement podcasts like Optimal Living Daily.

Researchers found that people were actually willing to pay to restrict their access to their guilty pleasure, in order to reward themselves for going to the gym, for example.

Maybe there’s a future gym which lets you borrow an iPod, pre-loaded with the best page-turners of the year — but only as long as you show up to exercise.


Ultimately, temptation bundling immediately rewards our brain for doing activities we normally don’t enjoy doing, but that gives us long term benefits. All we needed was a push in the right direction.


Psychobabbling

Getting your brain to do what you want it to.

Zulie Rane

Written by

Lover of writing, mother of cats, drinker of cheap red wine. She/her. Want to make money by writing on Medium? Get my starter kit here: tinyurl.com/y4c43ha7

Psychobabbling

Getting your brain to do what you want it to.