How to Make Exercise Addictive
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on March 29th, 2013

TI Coach Mat Hudson recently started an on-line book club to discuss books of interest to TI enthusiasts. Our first book is TI Coach Grant Molyneux’s book Effortless Exercise.

Mat’s first assignment was to discuss a question Grant posed in Chapter 1: “What part would exercise play in my life if I experienced heightened vitality during and after each session?”  With two thirds of Americans overweight to obese, and resulting health costs reaching unsustainable levels, anything that can help motivate more people to shift from sedentary to active lifestyles would have extraordinary value, to the health of the economy as well as each newly-active individual.

NY Times health writer Jane Brody spelled out the challenge of making this happen last August, in her article Changing Our Tune on Exercise.  Brody wrote: “For decades, people have been bombarded with messages that regular exercise is necessary to lose weight, prevent serious disease and foster healthy aging. While most people say they value these goals, the vast majority of Americans have thus far failed to swallow the ‘exercise pill.'”

What can increase inclination to exercise? The key is changing your reason for exercising. Setting a goal of, say, losing 15 lbs by the summer, nearly always fails as a motivator.  When health researchers interview people who do exercise regularly, they say their main motivation for being active is because they know that the time they spend exercising today will be so rewarding–in fact, for many, the best part of their day.

If experiencing heightened vitality during and after exercise was your reality, isn’t it likely you’d find exercising almost irresistible, rather than a checkoff you do because it’s supposed to be good for you?  In that case, the most sensible and effective exercise goal should be the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from a sense of heightened vitality. But most swimmers, runners and gym members set different goals—most commonly to complete a particular distance or time, or a certain frequency—say, three times a week.  Some have the discipline to keep it up, but without intrinsic reward, the majority are likely to find the will is weak.

From Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation

From my late 20s to late 30s, I exercised pretty irregularly. Partly because my daughters were young and their needs came first. Partly because after coaching three or four hours I had little desire to spend more time at the pool. (I ran a bit, but without much enthusiasm or purpose.) And partly because, like many people that age, I had little sense of health issues as a looming problem.

A bout with nearly-crippling back trouble got me back in the pool at 38 and, before long, into Masters swimming. I trained somewhat steadily for four years, pushed by a familiar urge—to swim faster times , or at least what I considered ‘respectable’ relative to how fast I’d swum in college. I didn’t think deeply about my reasons. I wanted to avoid back pain and the habit of doing repeats on intervals had become well established decades earlier.

My shift toward more personal reasons to exercise came in my early 40s. I took a hiatus from Masters swimming, which freed me from the repeat-treadmill.  And I was introduced to yoga—which had none of my familiar extrinsic motivational sources—time or speed goals, or the performance pressure of a coming meet.

Yoga’s primary influence was in exposing me to the idea the idea of doing an activity well for its own sake—I was inspired by the beauty, grace and strength of those around me and wanted my poses to achieve a similar esthetic. And I discovered that the laserlike focus that took, and the feeling of using my body well in a new way, left me feeling physically and mentally energized–call it heightened vitality—in a way that seemed more enduring than the momentary satisfaction of a fast repeat swim.

My hiatus from competing in Masters lasted about 10 years. During that time I continued swimming—much of the time experimenting with drill and skill tweaks for TI workshops and videos. But my exposure to yoga influenced me to practice swimming less like running and more like yoga.

I resumed competing, mostly in open water, in my early 50s and have continued doing so for 10 years.  I’ve lost none of my competitive spirit and  virtually all of my practice tasks are designed to hone race-winning skills. But the motivation that sends me to the pool or lake regularly is no longer the desire to win a future race.

Nor is it even the  knowledge that my swimming, yoga or any form of exercise will ensure healthy aging. I’m confident I’ll receive those benefits and value them highly. But my most compelling reasons for being an active person are (i) the immediate pleasure of using my body well, in a way it was meant to be used; and (ii) the Flow States I experience from doing activities that require my complete focus.  Both have powerful addictive qualities which means I start each day eagerly anticipating experiencing them again.


13 Responses to “How to Make Exercise Addictive”

  1. emily says:

    Inspiring Terry……so happy so many keep benefiting from your life journey….smiles, Coach Em

  2. Jayadeep Purushothaman says:

    Agree completely – the western(and worldwide now) notion of reward-and-punishment is wreaking havoc in all spheres of life. So unless there is a reward associated with something, we don’t care. So it is a natural consequence of how the system is setup.

  3. […] TI Coach Mat Hudson recently started an on-line book club to discuss books of interest to TI enthusiasts. Our first book is TI Coach Grant Molyneux’s book Effortless Exercise.  […]

  4. Wow nice one. Definitely trying those things out and see if they work for me. Thans for the ideas 🙂

  5. Gerry Rafferty says:

    I am a firm believer and supporter of
    Grants approach to exercise.
    I was a graduate of Grant’s TI training.
    Grants effortless approach to training got me
    to complete my first Ironman Triathlon in 2011 at 65 years of age.
    Grants book has inspired others to go beyond their expectations and learn to enjoy exercise.

  6. Jack Edelen says:

    Many years ago, an 85 year old former journalist and member of our cardiac rehab program, wrote a piece for the quarterly newsletter. He used a phrase “muscular joy” to communicate the positive feelings he got, in the moment, in his mind and body, from the pure pleasure of physical activity. In his case, it was either ballroom dancing or working out in rehab class but it applies to swimming, cycling, walking, running, whatever. I often experience “muscular joy” during my laps in the pool and think of this old friend. He had no formal mindfulness training but truly was living in the moment and enjoyed the feeling of movement of every muscle every day.

  7. Laura says:

    Making any exercise a ‘practice’ helps one tap into that intrinsic aspect, making the activity more satisfying on many levels. That’s what Chi Running does for running, much like yoga transformed your swimming into a more holistic practice. Great post!

  8. Robert Cheek says:

    I agree with Ms Brody. Yoga is a wonderful form of exercise and mental discipline.
    It brings a lot to the table for its practitioners. Once individuals realize how nice it is to feel ones breath they may be able to gain control of their life. If you have no breath you have no life!!

    Keep up the good work!!

  9. John Stokes says:

    I agree with everything said. In the end being comfortable with your own achievements and trying to improve what you do makes every activity, even work, a joy. I exercised when I was young for competitive reasons but did not start again until aged 57. What changed me was dealing with a health threat and while preparing for some major surgery I read Steven Covey’ book (7 Habits of highly effective people). I swim, I sail and I cycle and I involve my family a lot more. The time on the bike, swimming and sailing gives you time to think and makes you savor your life, your family and your friends. Best of all I think it makes you more generous (something not written but I think I detect in Terry’s words).

  10. Vince says:

    I agree with Tery that the endorfans generated during exercise surpass the competitve reasons for participating. I am 76 yo and have to be careful that I don’t think I am 20 years younger and push the competitive jucies to the point where my old tendons break down. I love swimming in the cold Pacific Ocean for 30 to 50 mins for the great feeling when recovering after the swim.

  11. Cari says:

    I think this is a great post. As a swimmer finding intrinsic motivation after years of focusing on times can be hard. This year has been great for me because my coach is focusing on things outside the pool that do no directly have an impact on time and athleticism (but obviously help). I have found my intrinsic motivation through spinning. It has really helped me to appreciate my team and take time to enjoy what i do!

  12. Lindsay says:

    This is a really great post, thanks

    For all the years my exercise has just been goal orientated and self motivated. I find that exercise gives me more energy and obviously the better physique. I will definitely be using the extra tips you’ve provided to make my exercising even more fun

    Thanks again

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