I am about to tell you something incredibly exciting.
Something that will make you throw down your phone, or jump up from your computer, or make some other dramatic exit from whichever medium you are using to read this, and rush out to take some exercise.
Are you ready? Are you sure? Quite, quite sure? Then here we go.
Regular physical activity will lower your risk of hip fracture by up to 68%.
Wait, you’re still here?
Of course, I knew you would be; the amusing charade that you and I have just been through merely served to illustrate a point.
And the point is this: The physical benefits of exercise are not particularly motivating.
If you look at most initiatives to get us exercising, you’ll find that they go very heavy on the physical benefits. Lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cancer, that sort of thing.
These benefits are huge and, logically, we should all be running out to get fit as soon as we’re aware of them. But look at us – it’s not happening. Why not?
The problem is that while these physical benefits may appeal to our advanced mind – our slow, logical mode of thinking – they hold little appeal for our basic mind – our fast, instinctive mode of thinking. And, unfortunately, it tends to be the basic mind which has the final say on whether we go out and exercise or not.
Present vs future benefits
Psychologists have shown that the basic mind gives far greater value to present benefits than future benefits, even though the future benefit may be demonstrably greater. For example, when people are offered a choice between £50 right now or £100 a year from now, many people choose the £50.
This is why we’re not very good at saving for retirement or preventing catastrophic climate change – we take small pleasures now instead of bigger benefits in the future.
And this is why, when it comes to exercise, reducing the risk of horrible diseases many years from now is not as attractive as having a nice lie in today.
But it’s not just that the physical benefits of exercise have no motivating effect on the basic mind – they may even have a demotivating effect.
My last post was all about the effect of identity on our exercise behaviour, and the importance of seeing yourself as the kind of person who exercises because we tend to behave in a way that’s consistent with our self-image. So what happens if the opposite is the case?
By highlighting the physical benefits of exercise, we naturally think about our current physical state and how it needs to be improved. As a result, we’re reminded that we’re out of shape, not very active and so on. And as we focus on this image of ourselves, we’re drawn to behave consistently with that image and therefore we may become less likely to exercise.
So if physical benefits don’t cut the mustard in motivating our basic minds, what does (cut the mustard)?
Well, several things, which I’ll be looking at in future posts (subscribe below!). But one helpful thing to focus on may be the physical benefits’ cerebral sibling: The mental benefits of exercise.
The mental benefits of exercise are significant. Evidence shows that exercise can be as effective as medication or therapy for treating depression and anxiety.
But it’s not only beneficial if you experience mental health problems – it has a significant positive effect on anybody’s mental state. In fact, psychologists and psychiatrists rate exercise as the most effective technique for changing a bad mood.
Most importantly, these effects are pretty much immediate, and this means that they are far more appealing to the present-focused basic mind than long-term physical benefits.
On top of this, the mental benefits feed into a positive identity cycle where more exercise leads to feeling better about oneself which leads to more exercise which leads to feeling better about oneself.
So, when you’re thinking of doing some exercise, tell yourself that you’ll feel much happier at the end of a 30 minute workout, rather than you’ll have a reduced risk of myocardial infarction in 20 years’ time.