I have a secret that I want to share with you, but you have to promise to not tell anyone. Do you promise? If the answer is “No,” stop reading now.
Before I reveal my secret, I want to tell you a little bit about my wife, Julie. When I met Julie, she was an avid runner, and that habit continued throughout most of our marriage. You may have noticed that I used the word “habit” rather than “hobby.” My choice of words was not random. A habit implies a repeated behavior incorporated into one’s psyche, where a hobby is a pleasurable leisure activity.
Julie loved to run. Running gave her energy and made her feel emotionally happy. Several years ago, she had a knee surgery that resulted in a bad outcome. That ended her running career. This was devastating to her, and she grieves the loss to this very day. To understand why that is the case, you need to learn just a little about how the brain works.
A structure in Julie’s brain, the nucleus accumbens (NA), becomes more active when she runs. The NA is part of the brain’s reward pathway. This is a pathway that is activated to reinforce behaviors that are necessary for species survival. Have you ever eaten a great meal and had a sense of ease and contentment afterward? When someone gives you a genuine hug, does it feel wonderful? Do you feel happy and mellow after a positive sexual experience? What you are feeling is an activation of the reward pathway; all of these activities are directly or indirectly necessary for our species’ survival.
There are ways to corrupt this pathway. Drugs of addiction, including cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, abnormally activate the reward pathway. Process addictions, like shopping and gambling, also activate this connection. The reward pathway doesn’t have logic; it is reflexive. When a drug like cocaine activates it, the brain assumes that cocaine is necessary for survival. Your brain seeks out cocaine, and an addiction is born.
The reward pathway’s sensitivity is governed by several factors, including a person’s genes, and different brains are likely activated by different things. Alcohol may over-activate one person’s brain but not others. Likewise, exercise may be triggering for one individual but not so much for someone else.
Why would one person’s NA be highly sensitive to exercise when another person is not? Is physical exercise necessary for species survival? As a species, we need physically active members. However, exercise is less important than eating or procreation. If you have more active and less active individuals, your overall species survival may be enhanced. Individuals who like to exercise could become warriors and builders. Those who prefer a more sedentary lifestyle would be content serving in other important but less physically demanding roles.
Our automated lifestyles are very recent in our evolution; everyone had to exercise to some degree in the past. However, over the last decades, the physical demands of humans in developed countries have diminished exponentially. We can order our groceries online, drive to our appointments, and even use a “robot” to vacuum our carpets. Our increasingly sedentary lives have had increased health consequences ranging from obesity to dementia. Since we don’t have to toil in the fields, some go for a run or spend time at the gym. For someone like my wife, it is easy to adopt an exercise program. Why? Because she has direct emotional and physical benefits from exercising. Who doesn’t like doing things that feel good?
Here is my secret, I don’t feel good when I exercise. In fact, I feel sort of lousy when I do it. I used to feel guilty that I hated exercise. I thought that there was something wrong with me or that I was just plain lazy. However, I now know that my brain just operates differently than some. Yet, I know that it is essential for me to be physically active. How does someone like me exercise regularly? How do I turn a negative into a positive?
When I married Julie, I was carried away by her exercise enthusiasm. I outfitted my basement with thousands of dollars of gym equipment. Every day I would force myself to go into the cellar and exercise. Every day I hated it. Despite my feelings, I exercised for over a year until I had a minor injury. I then stopped altogether.
Many years ago, my friend Tom encouraged me to join his gym. I would meet him at 5 AM most days before I worked with my personal trainer. Afterward, we would have coffee. I looked forward to going to the gym and reaped the benefits of all of my physical activity. After some time, Tom’s schedule changed, and he stopped coming. By then, I had established myself with some of the other gym rats who welcomed me into their fold. However, I found myself getting bored, and soon I came up with reasons to sleep in. The new reward didn’t offset the pain.
I knew that I had to do something physically, so I came up with another plan. I would get up very early and walk to my local Starbucks-a round trip of 3.5 to 4.5 miles, depending on my chosen route. I do enjoy walking, thinking, and meditating. At Starbucks, I formed friendships with some of the customers and had good relationships with the baristas. As a bonus, Tom would visit me on occasion. However, the real draw was that I used my time at the Starbucks to write, and I even had a dedicated table at the coffee shop. I was motivated to walk every day and did it one day when it was -27F outside. Unfortunately, all of that ended with the onset of the pandemic.
Walking and hiking are my favorite exercises, as they have many sensory dimensions. Movement for the sake of activity doesn’t do it for me. Exploring nature is motivating, but unless the scenery is incredibly engaging, it is still insufficient to get me out of bed every morning. I have found that I must combine my walking with another activity. Tom bought a townhome closer to my home, and I’m motivated to walk there to visit with him. My kids like to walk, and it is enjoyable for me to walk and talk with them. I also like to walk somewhere with a purpose. For instance, I don’t mind walking to our local market to pick up a few groceries. I have found that combining exercise with something that I enjoy reinforces my desire to be active.
I have also come to realize that some exercise is better than no exercise. In a perfect world, I would do various exercises that increased many aspects of my physical well being. However, I don’t live in an ideal world. Instead of constantly feeling guilty that I’m not doing enough, I am committed to celebrating what I am doing. Such an attitude promotes the continuation of a behavior. Guilt often has the opposite effect.
If I can pair a positive with something that I don’t want to do, it is much easier for me to accomplish my goal. This has been the case with exercising regularly, and I also do this “combining” technique for many other things that range from making dinner for my family to paying bills.
I pass this idea to you. Are there things that you need to do in your life that you procrastinate around? Consider pairing them with something that you do like, and you will probably have more success in accomplishing your goals.