How to train your brain to really enjoy exercise, according to science

Truth: They woke up like this. Some people are actually more inclined to find joy in exercise. But! You can rewire your brain to join that “love yourself” group, research shows.

When experts measured the electrical connectivity in the brains of people who are recreationally active, they found that those who perceived themselves as highly tolerant of physical exertion had higher levels of “remembered pleasure” afterward, according to the new study from the Florida International University. Meanwhile, those who said they were not as tolerant had a certain amount of “anticipatory fear,” or negative feelings, even before starting the job.

The good news is that you can teach yourself to be more physically and mentally accepting of movement, which will help you get excited about exercise in general and want it more often. By trying some (or all!) of these tactics, you’ll likely notice benefits right away, says study director Marcelo Bigliassi, PhD. To extend the effect, keep efforts ongoing, so subtle changes add up over time. Come in!

Meet the experts: Marcelo Bigliassi, PhD, is an assistant professor of neuroscience and psychophysiology at Florida International University. Diogo Teixeira, PhD, is a professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport at the Lusfona University in Lisbon, Portugal.

1. Add appeal to the flavor of exercise you already love.

Let’s say you don’t mind lifting weights, but you definitely don’t feel the anticipation leading up to a workout. You can create artificial motivation and enjoyment by listening to music or a podcast while you sweat, using virtual reality, or even engaging in a positive conversation, Bigliassi says. Or maybe getting up with a group or a friend is the missing ingredient for you. “You’re creating external signals that can help you push a little harder and a little faster.” The goal is to encourage positive experiences with sweat sessions. Gradually, the emotion will become second nature without these external cues.

“You’re creating external signals that can help you push a little harder and a little faster.”

Don’t know where to start to find your best activity? Think about your recent past, and even your childhood, says Bigliassi. “There are usually clues.” For example, if you used to enjoy swimming at your neighborhood pool, maybe that could translate into swimming laps at the local gym. Or maybe you were a dancer at some point in your life. Taking a virtual or IRL dance fitness class could spark passion.

2. Challenge yourself *just* enough.

No matter what you do, the activity should be hard enough that you get a sense of accomplishment that makes you want to do it again. But it should also be within your capabilities, in order to protect your sense of self-efficacy (ie, your belief in your abilities), says Bigliassi. When people experience an exercise intensity that is not aligned with their preference or tolerance, they exercise less in the future, according to research.

Take this thinking a step further: If you choose, say, a running pace that you find enjoyable (read: not quite), you may find running more enjoyable and more easily repeatable in the future. This “autonomy promotion” also applies to resistance training, says researcher Diogo Teixeira, PhD. So if resting longer between sets makes you feel better, go for it. (It will create these positive associations in your brain.) “More isn’t always better, and an enjoyable activity will be more easily maintained over time,” says Teixeira.

Tracking with a tracker can also let you see how much work you’re doing, which improves your fitness mindset and thus exercise-related happiness, a study found in Journal of medical research on the Internet.

3. Send your mind a motivational signal.

Humans are hardwired to conserve as much energy and store as much fat as possible. So sometimes and especially when the exercise gets intense, you have to remember why you’re going through this perceived craziness. “It’s hard for some parts of our brain to make sense of exercise,” says Bigliassi.

For example, remembering that cardio is important for both heart health and cognitive function can act as a motivational cue. This helps you feel more positive in the moment and be more consistent with exercise down the road; now associate the activity with a purpose and attractive health outcomes. Surprisingly, negative thoughts can also act as positive cues (for example, imagine your energy and mood from no moving on this day can be incredibly powerful). Consider this your sign to go for a walk or get ready to workout right now.

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