While society has evolved rapidly to offer us all the comforts of modern life, our bodies and our brains are still trying to catch up. They’re still stuck in a time when life was hard and rest was rare. So it’s logical that our bodies have evolved to send us signals about when we need to recover, not when we need to exercise more.

So, to make exercise a sustainable part of your routine, you need to trick your brain at two different levels. First, you need to take advantage of the chemicals released by the body during exercise. Second, you can harness the cognitive power of your neocortex (the most evolved part of your brain) to take command of your more primitive instincts that only seek immediate pleasure (i.e. slouching on the couch).

Your brain is hooked on its own chemicals

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It is now clear that exercise induces the production of different chemicals that have a direct positive effect on your brain. The most well know are endorphins. They are the natural pain killers of the body and work in the same way as their synthetic counterparts such as morphine. They make you feel good and reduce the sensation of pain associated with exercise.

More recently, science has discovered that exercise also releases a chemical that promotes neurological growth called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF serves two purposes. It increases the production of serotonin, another mood enhancing compound, and it contributes to the development of nerves and brain connections. Some studies have shown that it can also reduce depression and increase cognitive abilities.

The main problem is that the benefits that you draw from these chemicals are far from immediate. Endorphins only kick in about 30 minutes after the start of an activity and you will only notice the effects of BDNF on mood and intelligence after weeks or months of regular exercise. So that doesn’t get you off the couch in the first place.

Your neocortex at the rescue

Luckily, your neocortex has a nifty trick up its sleeve to get you moving. It’s called motivation.

What part of your brain motivates you to exercise

There are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from outside and isn’t directly under your control, such as when you say:

– I want to look good for that girl/boy at work that I fancy.

– I want to lift more weights to impress my friends at the gym.

– I want to learn yoga so I can retire from my office job and become a yoga teacher.

While extrinsic motivation is the most common reason to start working out, it’s not sustainable. Your success and your enjoyment depend on external factors: the girl/boy has to fancy you back, your friends need to be impressed by your progress or clients have to be willing to pay for your yoga courses. If, for any reason, these factors are taken away from you, you’ve got nothing left to keep going.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation comes from within you and is directly in your control. Let’s rephrase the previous extrinsic motivations as intrinsic ones:

– I want to be able to wear that suit/dress I saw the other day (it may impress others, but you draw satisfaction in the fact that you look good, regardless of what others say).

– I want to be fitter so I don’t risk hurting my back when I lift heavy objects.

– I want to learn yoga to calm down and feel more at ease in my body.

As you can see, in the case of intrinsic motivation, the rewards only depend on you. It is the sort of motivation that drives high level athletes. If Usain Bolt was extrinsically motivated, he’d have retired by now!

How you can create a sustainable exercise program

1. Find a physical activity that you like and that fits into your life. Walking is better than doing nothing. You like snooker? That’s fine. If you practice it regularly, you’ll soon realise that your stomach is getting in the way and you’ll be motivated to work out more.

2. Look into yourself for rewards that don’t depend on others. The ultimate intrinsic reward is your personal happiness.

3. Do short workouts 2 or 3 times a week instead of a single long one. It has two advantages: you’ll improve your skills faster and the chemical rewards will come more often.

Talking to a qualified therapist/coach can help you find the motivation you need to keep you on track, especially at the beginning when the chemical rewards haven’t kicked in yet. They can also help you identify truly intrinsic motivations to exercise and integrate them into your life.

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