Retrain your brain

Take a look at your favourite chair. Now, check out your gym bag. Which of the two leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy? If you’re like most Canadians (and you haven’t repurposed your gym bag for transporting baked goods), you will choose the chair.

According to a new study, evolution has conditioned us to loaf.

In his research, Matthieu Boisgontier from the University of British Columbia found that our brains are wired for sedentary behaviours. Subjects in the study avoided objects typically associated with physical activity but were attracted to those associated with comfort. Like soporific lions lazing under the savanna sun, we conserve energy for that all important hunt. Rest now, work later.

Problem is, today’s ‘hunt’ seldom extends beyond an occasional rain-drenched dash from front door to car door.

Conserving energy for survival may have kept us alive for thousands of years but it’s killing us today. With the thrill of the hunt no longer interrupting long periods of sedentary behaviour our bodies are decaying. Rest now, rest later.

So, how do you undo a behaviour that’s ingrained in your DNA? Not so simple but definitely doable. Here are a few tricks.

Believe it, then fake it

Like the movie Groundhog Day, we are destined to repeat whatever we did last week and the week before. Unless broken by crisis, rituals rule our world — that is, until we disrupt the cycle.

Routines are the habits we duplicate on autopilot. Want to develop a new habit? Exercise your brain. Dream it, believe it, live it — even if (especially if) you have to fake it. Your brain takes your thoughts at face value, even when they aren’t real.

Of course, I’m simplifying things. For a truly inspirational overview on changing behaviours, check out Dr. Joe Dispenza’s speech on YouTube titled, ‘This Left the Audience Speechless’.

Success breeds success

If you’re normal, you probably harbour negative feelings toward exercise. (Grade Eight gym class was only fun for a few wiry kids who developed early.)

Surround your workouts with positivity by setting the stage for success. A 5 a.m. run in the snow is great for Navy Seals but it may not be the best way to launch a new habit. Matthieu Boisgontier’s research forecasts delinquent workouts when pitting your comfy bed against cold pavement.

In the beginning, showing up is success. Be patient and focus on attendance — not effort. And, if you believe Dr. Dispenza, thinking you are successful will reframe your brain.

Swap bad chemicals for good

Endorphins make exercise tolerable by reducing perceived discomfort. Many exercisers experience a feeling of post-workout euphoria, which inevitably leads to more workouts.

Find a comfortable exercise environment, download some inspirational music, and let the endorphins wash over you.

Friends don’t let friends gain weight

Want to improve your workout results? Friends can improve your progress by setting a good example.

As reported in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Communications, exercisers who extended their run by an additional kilometre influenced their friends to increase their run by 0.3 kilometres. Similarly, an additional 10 minutes on the treadmill influenced friends to add three minutes to their time.

Connect with friends planning to embark on an exercise regime and prop each other up.

Punishment leads to success

Surprisingly, punishment may have a bigger impact on weight loss than rewards.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that removing existing monetary rewards improved performance by two to three times over rewarding with money. It turns out people are more concerned about losing something they currently possess versus acquiring something new.

If you plan on using punishment as an incentive, reverse-engineer the typical reward strategy. Instead of purchasing a new outfit for successfully losing 10 pounds, establish a ‘missed workout’ fund. Have a friend, workout partner or trainer debit the account every time you skip a workout. They get to spend the money on something selfish instead of you.

It seems exercise may not be instinctual, so you may want to start using your brain to trick itself into some physical activity. And don’t forget to take the donuts out of your gym bag.

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