Getting There Is Worth the Exercise
In healthcare, traditionally we talk about the effects of exercise on blood sugar, weight and blood pressure instead of the experience of exercise itself. Health campaigns report how many minutes we should exercise every week — 150 minutes with moderate intensity and 75 minutes with high intensity, according to national recommendations.1 But perhaps we’re missing the point by reducing exercise to a means.
Play with the idea that we should issue recommendations on how many minutes people ought to spend with their family every week. And how intense the conversations should be!
In most cases spending time with family has an intrinsic value. If being together is only a means to achieve something else (such as get an inheritance or fulfill a duty), it won’t be very enjoyable.
What if it’s the same with exercise? That we take away the sheer enjoyment of exercise when we see it as a means to get lower blood sugar and improved blood pressure. That we unconsciously make exercise into a chore to be checked off.
Research has shown that our exercise habits are often driven by external motivation.2 This may involve exercising to get lower weight, a better-looking figure or confirmation and praise from others.
These all correspond to important needs, and for that reason external motivation can be a “carrot” to get started with exercise.
But studies also show that external motivation can lead to feelings of guilt or failure if we don’t reach our goals, and that we therefore lose interest.2
In contrast, if the experience of exercise becomes an end in itself, we are driven by inner motivation.
Then exercise is not so much about results but about moving beyond yourself, forgetting everyday problems for a while and becoming one with a bigger context, just like when we let ourselves go in playing with children or pleasant socializing.
Researchers say that then we are living in flow or self-transcendence (which literally means “to climb above yourself”).3
Try to be completely present in the experience next time you exercise, whether you are running, working in the garden, bicycling or doing something else.
Take in the surroundings with all your senses. Listen to birdsong instead of checking the stopwatch. Let impressions wash over you and feel how you become one with the whole and find peace in your soul. Some people experience this presence most easily in nature. Others find the greatest experience at the gym or in the city. Test what suits you.
Many people have personal little “mantras” that they repeat when they exercise, e.g. “easy, easy, easy.” Perhaps you already have something similar? Or could a question of yours actually be such a mantra during exercise?
Lifestyle changes that feel meaningful for their own sake and are not simply about reaching a weight or blood sugar goal are often easier to stick to. In that way exercise can be a way to truly rich experiences instead of a painful duty. Exercise as a goal in itself. And as a long-term side effect: better health!
How much do you focus on the goal as opposed to the path when you exercise?
1. Socialstyrelsen. Guidelines for diabetes care [Swedish: Nationella riktlinjer för diabetesvård]
2. Teixeira et al. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2012, 9:78
3. Peterson C et al. The Journal of Positive Psychology, July 2007; 2(3): 149–156