In Sunday’s paper there was a full color comic strip—a dad all fired up to start exercising only to find himself doing the exact opposite, sitting in his easy chair watching T.V with a bag of chips. It baffles the mind! How can we have so many great reasons to exercise, spend billions every year on fitness, and still be struggling to get and stay motivated to exercise regularly? Why do our brains resist exercising when we know it is so good for us?   

The Battle In Your Brain about Exercise 

Since the dawn of time, movement has been for the purpose of surviving and thriving.  Our brain is hardwired to move to: 

  • Nourish our body 
  • Protect against danger
  • Connect with our ‘tribe’

When the concept of exercise came along, it brought a whole new purpose to movement – to improve your athletic abilities, or your looks, or for being healthy in the future. 

The growing mountain of evidence about the benefits of exercise further convinced our logical brain that we should be exercising regularly. That mountain, and the billion dollar fitness industry, should equate to everyone getting enough exercise. Instead, what it’s doing is fueling the internal war between what we know we should do and what we actually do regularly.  

The battle sounds something like this. Your logical brain says, “You are gaining weight, your knees hurt, and you have a family history of heart disease. You should start exercising again.” The survival part of your brain answers, “What!? You want me to tell your body to move in ways that will probably make it feel worse, so that some day in the future, you might look better, feel better, and avoid a disease? I’ve got more important things to do right now, like making sure you survive and thrive in this crazy world you are living in. Maybe we can do that exercise thing later.”

And so the battle between the survival part of your brain and the logical part of your brain quietly rages in the background, stealing a bit of your energy, even as you live your daily life. Every exercise you see on social media, every story of someone having a heart attack, or every ache you feel when walking upstairs, only fuels the battle between what you know you should do for your future and what you need to do to survive today. 

The fitness marketing brilliance that keeps most of us stuck

We have come to believe the struggle with staying motivated is just part of exercise, so we have invented all kinds of tips and tricks to get the logical brain to win, like setting goals, paying for highly structured programs with someone to push us to work harder and keep us accountable, and using apps and trackers to feel like we are making progress.   

The problem is that calories, steps, and guilt-memberships don’t mean much to the survival part of the brain. When your body is tired, the bills pile up, or someone in your ‘tribe’ needs you, all of those logical motivators are put on the back burner. No matter how many times you remind yourself you should get more exercise or how many goals you set or challenges you join, the survival part of your brain will always win out. Always!  

If all this is true, why has the fitness industry grown over the years?  Because it knows how to tap into this survival part of your brain by creating exclusive tribes and make it highly desirable to be a part of them:  

  • The Fit Tribe: for people who have achieved a certain look: six pack abs, beautifully toned arms, and perfectly shaped legs.  
  • The Athletic Tribe: for people who achieve incredible feats with their body, do not wimp out on tough workouts, and have that ‘badass’ attitude that melts the competition. 
  • The Exerciser Tribe: for people who run through snow, sleet, and rain, go to the gym no matter what, and love to sweat.  

There is nothing wrong with these tribes. They work with that survival part of the brain and work great to keep about 20% of people exercising. But what about the other 80% who don’t fit into these tribes? Will they continue to miss out on all the great benefits of exercise because they are part of the ‘I’m not an exerciser’, ‘I’m so out of shape’, or ‘I’m just too lazy’ tribes”?  

How to use your survival brain to stay motivated to exercise

Thanks to a greater understanding of how the brain works, we know that being motivated to exercise is not about genetics, athletics, or aesthetics. It’s about working with, rather than against, the survival part of your brain.   

When you think about exercise and move your body in the ways that give the survival part of your brain a reason to exercise and keep exercising, motivation is pretty effortless. It starts by rethinking exercise as: 

Nourishing. Your logical brain thinks in terms of calories or other measures of how much is enough exercise. Your survival brain thinks in terms of what gives your body enough energy to survive and thrive today.  Try changing from the mindset that exercise is to burn calories and start thinking of exercise as a way to have more energy. For example, instead of doing cardio at a high intensity to get your heart rate up and long enough to burn more calories than you eat so you can make the scale go down  (logical brain mindset), do cardio at a level that gives you more energy today, boosts your mood, and relieves the energy-drain of stress. 

Protecting. Your survival brain does not care whether you can’t do one push-up or if you can do a thousand push-ups. It does care greatly about the safety of you and your ‘tribe’. Trade the idea of exercise goals to improve the numbers like steps, weight lifted, or miles moved, for the confidence your body can do what it needs to do to keep you and your family safe and well. Knowing that exercise instantly boosts your immune system tells your survival brain that during a pandemic, exercise will help you and your family stay safe. Each day you exercise in a way that gives you energy, you give your immune system a big boost, and at the same time, give your brain protection against the other pandemics happening right now—depression and anxiety. 

Connecting. Your survival brain can tell the difference between a pseudo tribe and a true tribe. It knows that the stranger yelling at you to keep going while riding your peloton bike is not part of your true tribe. Yes, it feels great to be connected to people and someone yelling at you or next to you can make you push harder,  but they are not your best source for lasting motivation. Your survival brain knows these are not the people who you care most about in your heart. Your survival brain knows your true tribe are the people who will be by your side when you are sick and celebrate with you at a wedding.  Those people don’t need to be exercising with you to motivate you, they just need to be connected strongly to why you exercise and what you do for exercise. 

When you notice how exercise directly connects you to your true tribe each day; whether it is being more patient with an aging parent, setting a positive example for your children, or enjoying fun activities with your spouse, you find you don’t need someone to push you or keep you accountable.  When what you do connects to what is most important to you in a positive way, your survival brain will want you to keep exercising. 

Exercising for short-term goals or long-term results?

In the long run, any way you get yourself to keep exercising will improve your physical fitness level over time. If you only need that fitness temporarily, such as for a sports season or to look good for a wedding,  all those logical brain tools will help you push to get to that goal and override your survival brain through tough workouts.  But if you want the results for the rest of your life, know that your survival brain will tell you not to exercise if it is taking energy away from other more urgent tasks for surviving and thriving, even if your logical brain tells you it will burn off last night’s dessert.   If exercise done in a way that gives you energy and makes you feel better immediately your survival brain considers it a source of nourishment, protection and connection and it will encourage you to do it regularly. In the end, because the body is a use it to keep it system, it’s consistency, not high intensity, that will give you the more lasting results that you want from exercising.  

Mindset is just the start of exercise motivation. 

While this all sounds great in theory, we are stuck in a conundrum. Over the decades, what has come to be considered ‘good exercise’ leaves your body feeling sore, exhausted, or incompetent. Because what your body tells your brain as you move is very powerful, those feelings send signals to your survival brain that this thing you call ‘exercise’ is best avoided. No matter what you tell yourself,  if exercise does send signals from your body to your brain that it is nourishing, protecting, or connecting, your survival brain will work hard to override your logical brain by giving it excuses why you can’t or don’t have time to exercise.    

In my next blog, I’ll go into more detail about how to exercise so your survival brain and logical brain can work together to keep you motivated to exercise regularly.