The alarm goes off—it’s time for a morning run, but 20 extra minutes of sleep sound better. You’ll run this evening, or maybe tomorrow, once you’ve caught up on work. Somehow, though, the week flies by, and you feel a twinge of guilt with every glance at your untouched running shoes.
Does this sound like you? Michelle Segar, Director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center at the University of Michigan, spoke in a recent Heleo Conversation about her work applying motivation science to help people enjoy exercise again.
Here’s why exercise can be more guilt-inducing than fun, why we dread going to the gym, and what to do about it:
1. Self-care isn’t a priority, but it should be.
Why is it hard to make time for exercise? “We unconsciously learn to prioritize everyone and everything else consistently above our own self-care,” Michelle says. “A lot of people say, ‘I think it’s selfish. I feel guilty when I do it.’ That is often language women use. Among men, I hear them saying, ‘I don’t give myself permission to prioritize my own self-care. Work is constantly on my mind.’” With this value system, taking time to take care of ourselves can feel selfish. But in order to best care for others, we have to ensure we’re caring for ourselves.
2. Physical activity works when it’s essential to our identities.
Getting motivated to be active is infinitely easier when you consider yourself an active kind of person. Whether it’s part of who you are to wake up at 5 am to run 10 miles, go for a walk after dinner, or play catch in the yard with your kid, integrating activity into your identity makes it easier and more fun to do. Michelle advises, “You need to convert it from simply something you want to do to something that is essential to who you are, and fuels you to be better at and be more enthusiastic for the things you care most about…. Convert it from a want to a need.”
3. Exercise doesn’t have to feel bad.
If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “exercise” is a grueling, sweaty workout, you aren’t alone. Michelle adds that, “We’ve been socialized to exercise in ways that are hard and intense and make our heart rate go up—[but] research shows when we exercise in ways that make our body feel like that, people’s displeasure increases.” And it’s hard to get excited about something that feels bad.
Michelle stresses that physical activity doesn’t have to be miserable to “count” as exercise. Walking, roller skating, and biking all “count,” too. Michelle says, “Once the idea is ignited that physical activity can actually be something you have fun with, it changes everything. Recall, as a kid, did you like to ride your bike?” Even if it’s been a while, you can always rediscover how great it feels to get your body moving.