In the book, The Pleasure Trap, authors Drs. Lisle and Goldhammer talk about a triad that helps explain what drives and has driven human behavior over the centuries. The triad quite simply is this: as humans we a) seek pleasure, b) avoid pain and c) are driven by energy efficiency. While this may sound a tad simplistic, on a very basic level this triad has helped to ensure our survival as a species. Hunger is painful, so we seek food. Eating is pleasurable, as is sex. And the most energy efficient way to get that food the better! It is easy to see how this triad helped us survive. But, alas, it is now working against us.
The mechanization of our world has been strongly driven by this need for energy efficiency. We now have to make a conscious choice to expend energy during the day, whether it means taking the stairs, not taking the closest parking spot or finding time to go to the gym. Additionally our food environment is filled with invitations to eat artificially concentrated foods that light up the pleasure centers of our brain. Indeed, scientists are now saying that these foods are not unlike certain drug addictions. Food producers are well aware that the combination of fat, salt and sugar are especially addicting because of the pleasure response they provide. This might explain why it is difficult to stop part of the way through a bag of chips or popcorn.
Given that this triad is a strong driver of behavior, how can we make this work for us and not against us? This post outlines some ideas for exercise as it relates to seeking pleasure and will be followed by two more posts on pain avoidance and energy efficiency (next week’s posts will talk about how it can help us eat better).
Rule 1: Exercise must be pleasurable in order for it to be sustainable.
When we survey executives who exercise regularly and ask them why they exercise, by far the most common response is that “it makes me feel better”. Few say “I exercise because I am afraid of getting heart disease or cancer”. Part of the lesson here is that the motivation to exercise ultimately needs to be driven by that need for enjoyment or pleasure seeking. The rewards need to outweigh the barriers. So what are some ways that we can turn exercise into pleasure seeking?
1. Boost your endorphin response. The research has shown a couple of ways that we can do this. One is to have a social aspect to your exercise. One study found that when rowers did the same workout as a team versus alone, the endorphin response was boosted. While it isn’t always practical to participate in a team sport (indeed only a very small percentage of executives report that they play a sport), having a workout partner can go a long way toward staying motivated and increasing the pleasure response. This might only be practical on the weekends, but try to work out with someone you enjoy spending time with at least 1-2x per week.
In lieu of having a workout partner during the week, however, check out the website www.dailymile.com. Create an account and invite your friends to as well. You can then record your workout, your friends can see it (and comment on it), and it tracks your workouts as well. It is fun and easy to use and can be quite motivating. It can also create accountability and provoke some friendly competition.
Research has also shown that if you have less time, you need to exercise more intensely (as in doing intervals) in order to get that endorphin high. If you only exercise at a moderate intensity (such as brisk walking), then you need to exercise for at least an hour to get that same high.
2. Work out in a natural environment. This not only improves the pleasure factor but has been shown to improve cognitive performance as well. If you don’t have access to parks or trails, include a route that has as many natural elements as possible (like tree-lined streets). Of course this means exercising outside when you can. Save the indoor workouts for when it is too cold, dangerous or dark to go outside.
3. Exercise for a cause bigger than yourself. As one executive put it, “If you ask my kids why daddy runs, they will say, daddy runs because he loves us”. When Fauja Singh–the first and, so far, only 100 year old to run a marathon–was asked why he decided to run and what kept him going, he said his primary motivation was to raise money for charity. There are many organizations that use events such as walks, runs or bike rides to raise money. Find a cause that you are passionate about, and then you can feel good about training for and doing the event. At the very least stay fit so that you can be around for your grand kids, partner or spouse.
4. Rise to the challenge. Humans and especially executives, thrive on challenge. Set a challenging goal for yourself whether it is training for your first marathon, triathlon, climbing a mountain, learning a new sport, or completing a certain number of miles over a certain period of time. Meeting challenges comes with a high degree of pleasure and sense of reward.
5. Use music. Music has been shown to help us push harder than we normally would. If you’ve ever taken a group exercise class like aerobics or spinning, think how much less pleasurable it would be without music. Create your own playlist with upbeat music that you only listen to when you are on the treadmill, elliptical or stationary bike.
6. Vary what you do. If you went to work and did the same thing day in and day out, how long would that last? The brain loves novelty and variety. Incorporate some variety and interest into your program. Do yoga one day, and bike the next. Vary the intensity and duration of what you do. If you are on a stationary piece of equipment, do intervals. If outside, do some fartleks (this is not a bad word, rather it means speed play) by picking up the pace to a certain bend or light pole, go easy then repeat to a different target.
What are some additional methods that you use to make exercise more pleasurable?