January is the cruelest month, at least for those with good intentions to get fit. According to recent analyses of decades’ worth of exercise studies, many new exercise “intenders” will abandon their workout routines within two weeks of their New Year’s resolutions, and about half will quit by June. Even longtime exercisers feel the pull of physical entropy. In any given year, around a quarter of the people who had been working out dutifully will stop. (And about 2 percent of those who claim to have no intention of exercising actually start and continue, baffling researchers and possibly the exercisers themselves.)

Why we fail to realize our best exercise intentions is a complex interplay of psychology, physiology and genetics. Adult twins frequently have similar exercise patterns, suggesting that some portion of exercise motivation is inherited. Innate personality also plays a role, according to one of the new reviews published last fall in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Being extroverted makes it easier to stick with exercise resolutions, while being nice (or “agreeable,” in psychological terms) does not.

But most quit exercising for more commonplace — and redressable — reasons. For instance, people make generic or unrealistic plans about where and when they will exercise, making them essentially fairy-tale wishes, says Ryan Rhodes, a professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who has co-written several recent reviews and conducted numerous exercise-intention experiments.

“Someone can plan to go to the gym Friday at 5:30 a.m. before work,” he says, but if he or she hates early rising or prebreakfast exertion, those plans will evaporate. What Dr. Rhodes describes as a “far more detailed strategy” that concretely addresses specific obstacles (Which bus runs at 5:30 a.m.? Gym bag packed and next to the door?) is more likely to motivate behavior. Also gauge “your daily fatigue and schedule exercise during times when you feel best,” he advises.

But the most important factor when it comes to sticking with exercise is so obvious that it frequently goes unheeded. The appeals of physical fitness — good health, pleasing appearance, appropriate body weight — are vague and distant, and “the actual experience of exercise is not given much consideration,” Dr. Rhodes says. In other words, we don’t think about whether we like exercise before we embark on a regimen, yet our feelings about exercise predict “who translates their intentions into behavior,” as Dr. Rhodes puts it.

So the first consideration is finding your exercise bliss. Typically this includes variety, novelty and competence. People who feel ungainly in a Zumba class won’t keep attending.

Rewards, furthermore, are of limited value. Promise yourself an hour of television after 30 minutes of walking through the neighborhood, and the walk can seem more pleasurable. But naked greed is not much of a motivator. In a study published last year in Preventive Medicine, 117 college freshmen agreed to visit their school’s gym on a regular schedule. Some were then paid at least $10 weekly if they complied. After four months, the for-profit exercisers had visited the facility more times in total than the other students, but only 63 percent met the original agreed-upon goals, and everyone’s attendance had fallen off week by week. Even for the notoriously impecunious, cash cannot overcome lack of interest.

Source: New York Times

January 15, 2014

By: Gretchen Reynolds, Illustration by Ben Wiseman