The behavioral scientist’s guide to fitness

Last week, I talked about the ways exercise can improve your memory, enhance your problem-solving skills and banish stress. Of course, regular workouts also reduce your chances of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even depression. We all know that exercise is good for us. Sticking to a routine is the hard part.

There are lots of get-fit tips floating around the internet, but not all of them are sound. Lucky for us, behavioral scientists dedicate their lives to understanding motivation and commitment. Here are some common suggestions, followed by research-based tips for making — and sticking to — an exercise routine.

You’ve heard: Set a goal

Science says: Make a concrete, achievable goal, not just “get fit” or “lose weight.” It can be anything from benchpressing 200 pounds to running a 5K. Now, figure out all the tiny steps you’ll need to take to reach that goal. Break your big goal, like running a 5k, into a series of small goals, like going for a run three times a week.

You’ve heard: Make a commitment.

Science says: Make it public. Hang a workout log in your office in view of your co-workers. Announce your upcoming 5K on social media. Make a public declaration of your commitment to fitness. Social pressure is a powerful thing.

You’ve heard: Find an accountability partner.

Science says: Not your spouse or partner. Romantic partners make great enablers. Choose a sibling, friend or coworker, and have them schedule a time to check in at least once a week.

You’ve heard: Put it on your schedule.

Science says: Make it costly to flake out. Find a creative punishment for missing your goals. When my friend was training for a marathon, he kept missing his morning runs. Then he promised a friend he’d wear a rival team’s jersey to the big game if he missed two runs in a row. Needless to say, he never missed two in a row again.

You’ve heard: Find an activity you love.

Science says: Trick yourself into loving it. Temptation bundling is a psychological technique of pairing a necessary but unpleasant task with an unnecessary but pleasant one. Here’s how it works. Love Law and Order? Only let yourself watch it on the stationary bike at your gym. Are you a podcast fanatic? Save your favorite one for your morning run.

You’ve heard: Sitting is bad for you.

Science says: Walking is better than standing. Whenever you can, replace your meetings with walk-and-talks. Make a weekly yoga date with your friends. Instead of spending commercial breaks catching up on Twitter, challenge yourself to a wall sit or plank. Small, simple swaps add up.

The hardest part of any exercise routine is getting started. These behavioral techniques will help get you out the door and into the gym, even on days when you’d rather sleep in.

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