A half century ago, Walter Mischel, a Stanford psychologist, led the classic “marshmallow study”, which was actually a series of studies. In one of them, young children were presented with a marshmallow and told by an adult that they could eat that marshmallow immediately but if they waited, they could have not one, but two marshmallows. Then the adult left the room for a short period of time while the young child was tested with one of the great tests of humanity, delay of gratification.

Delay of gratification is an aspect of motivation and I mean motivation from a neurological standpoint, not the popular understanding of just “wanting hard enough.” I could write an entire post on the pitfalls of thinking of motivation as “wanting” or “not wanting”; “caring or “not caring”; or the very damaging “being a good person” or “being a bad person”.

Motivation to obtain an immediate reward is easy. Motivation to avoid or escape immediate discomfort, danger, or something else we don’t like is also relatively easy. Both are forms of immediate reinforcement, the former is positive reinforcement and the latter is negative reinforcement.

I think about motivation a lot. Some of this is for professional reasons. I work with a lot of kids who have difficulties working for delayed rewards or to avoid delayed negative outcomes. They are most excellent at working for immediate reinforcement. If an activity is fun, they can do it for a long time. If an activity is mundane, boring, or frustrating, they do all they can do to avoid it or escape it.

Parents often don’t understand why it’s so hard for a kid to delay gratification. Why does he play video games all night? Why does she texts friends all of the time instead of doing homework? Don’t they know how important school is?

I empathize with the frustration. I also often give the parents an example. I say, “I have a Ph.D. and I am a generally very disciplined person. I want to be physically healthy. And yet for many years, I did not exercise regularly. I also have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. Food tastes really good.”

Most parents identify with this example. Working for the second marshmallow is really hard. The first marshmallow is right there, after all. Working to help avoid long-term negative outcomes is also hard. Those outcomes are a long way off and further, in the case of physical health, there are no guarantees of success in terms of extended life span.

This brings me to today’s topic, which is motivation to exercise. We’re all told to do it. I have struggled on and off with physical exercise. For the past several years, I’ve had a regular habit of exercise. I have recently “upped my game”. I want to hike more and the hiking in my area of the country is challenging because it is so darned hilly around here. I am also working to lose weight and be more fit in general. This has gotten me thinking about motivation.

First, here are some motivation myth-busters:
1) Motivation is not a moral characteristic. It is a neurological process.
2) Motivation does not have a switch that is turned on by wanting something hard enough.
3) Motivation is not fixed. Motivation is not the same for every life activity.  Even motivation to do the same activity can wax and wane. Making behaviors into habits can help but is not an absolute.
4) Doing things that are good for you in the long run but not satisfying right now is really hard.

Let me repeat that,  doing things that are good for you in the long run but not satisfying right now is really hard, especially if there is no immediate bad thing that happens if I skip it. However, it is possible to get better at this.

The hardest thing about exercising for a lot of us is getting started. Here are a few tips for reducing barriers. This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add your own tips in the comment section.

What exercise?
If you hate exercise, bundle it with something you like. Some people read or watch t.v. while using exercise equipment. I walk outside because I love being outdoors and it is also a good opportunity to take photos. If you are a social person, an exercise class may be a good idea. Once people are used to seeing you, they will ask you why you didn’t make it to a class! You can also do something pleasant or rewarding after exercise to increase motivation. (See below.)

Schedule your exercise. If you take a class that only meets particular times, this can be a major advantage. Time flexibility is not necessarily an advantage when you are trying to establish a new habit.

Seriously, when am I going to do this? I am really busy. I can’t possibly add another thing to my schedule.
Say to yourself, “Maybe I could do one more thing.” Or, “Maybe I don’t need to do all of the things I am doing now.” Then take a deep breath. Maybe it’s the thought of having another commitment, another thing “I should do” that is the burden and not so much the time. You do not have to marry exercise. You can have a fling and see how it goes.

How do I get started?
This is getting out of bed early to exercise before work. This is looking at the bad weather outside and going out to exercise, anyway. This is scheduling a time, the time comes, and thinking, “I can do this later.” Here are some tips that might help:

  1. Reduce the number of steps needed to get started. Lay out your exercise clothes the night before. Sleep in your exercise clothes and put your shoes next to the bed. Get fully dressed for intended morning exercise as soon as you get up, including shoes. You may be surprised at how much trouble it seems to get your shoes on after you’ve finished your breakfast and drank some coffee. If you exercise after work, change into work out gear at your work place or as soon as you get home.
  2. Build in reward for getting started. Give yourself a small square of chocolate on your drive to the gym. Treat yourself to a coffee at a drive through. When my husband and I walk together on the weekend, we stop at the local coffee shop about 15 minutes into the walk. He is highly motivated for coffee and does not like our home coffee.

How long?
You all know the answer to this. Start with what is do-able. Start small. It is easier to build up than to make your goals so high that you feel that you have failed every time you have actually done exercise.

Maybe, just maybe, you will learn to enjoy exercise. Maybe the second marshmallow will be the exercise itself. Or maybe not.

How will you know until you try?