The science behind the Exercising WELL Method
We know that exercise is good for us. In fact, there is no superfood, medication, or type of meditation that can do what exercise does for your body and your brain. Why then do only 24% of people get the recommended amounts? Why do most exercise programs fail within the first few weeks? The problem is, exercise has become a ‘should’.
Motivation scientists have known for a long time that humans are not motivated to do something if it feels like a ‘should’1. Instead, we are motivated to do what makes us feel better now. The mounting information about the benefits of exercise, and the growing list of ways to exercise, only make the ‘should’ worse.
Exercising WELL removes the ‘should’ from exercise, blending brain and body sciences to upgrade how you think about and do exercise. After years of studying and applying the sciences of movement, motivation, and mindfulness, it is clear that what works for the brain and body comes down to three factors. These are the principles of Exercising WELL.
Principle #1: Passion-driven
Based on Self-determination Theory and the Exercise Training Principles of Specificity and Individuality
Motivation science tells us that we are naturally motivated to do what is important to us.1 The things we value most give us a surge of energy. Losing weight and being healthy are important but are things you can put off until ‘the time is right’. Feeling better about yourself, being able to do things with your family and friends, having more energy, are all things that you don’t want to put off. These intrinsic motivators are your core Why for exercise2. When what you do for exercise is clearly connected to what you are most passionate about in life, motivation is more natural and lasting.
Exercise science tells us that your body gets used to what you give it, specifically.3 When you get more steps or burn calories, you are not giving your body the specific information about what you want to be able to do. Since your body is a use-it-to-keep-it system, exercise is the way you tell your body you want to develop and keep the abilities that allow you to keep doing what is important to you like traveling, playing with the kids, or doing your favorite hobby.
Mindfulness is what helps you stay focused on these intrinsic motivators, rather than relying on external motivators that are known to be short-term. Mindfulness helps your brain and body work together to build and keep the muscle memory for moving in the ways that are most important to you. The bonus is you get the benefits of mindfulness too!
The passion-driven principle ensures that every exercise you do is motivating and gets you the results you REALLY want because it is designed to help you keep the physical and mental abilities you need to do what makes your life enjoyable. That leads to principle #2.
Principle #2: Positive experience
Based on The Habit Loop, Growth Mindset and the Exercise Training Principles of Progressive Overload and Reversibility
Motivation science tells us that your brain is hardwired to tell you to avoid what makes you feel worse and repeat what makes you feel better. This is called the habit loop and it’s what has kept us safe and protected from danger since the beginning of time.4 This means that what makes something a habit is experience or how something feels, not time or how long you do it. Exercise becomes a habit when it is an instantly positive experience for both your body and brain, and will become something you avoid if it is a negative experience. If your experience is mixed, you will be stuck in the ‘shoulds’.
Movement science ensures exercise is strengthening your body without strain. Biomechanics and kinesiology are the movement sciences that guide us to how your body is designed to move with the least strain and most ease. Exercise chemistry lets us know how movement can create a cascade of chemicals in your brain that improve mood, learning, and focus, as well as calm the stress response. Exercise physiology tells us that your body adapts to exercise gradually.3 Like a plant, give your body too much and it won’t grow well at all, but give it just enough of what it needs and the time to grow, and it will thrive. All of these movement sciences agree that the body is built on a use it to keep it system Training and de-training are both largely reversible which means we need motivation science for exercise science to work.
For exercise to be a positive experience, you need to move the way it was designed, and progress gradually to give it time to adapt and grow stronger. That brings us to principle #3.
Principle #3: Presence
Based on Mindfulness, Self-compassion, Body-Brain Connection and the Exercise Training Principle of Individuality
Motivation science tells us that mindful self-compassion is one of the most powerful tools for improving health, well-being, and motivation all at the same time.5 Self-criticism and distraction are surefire ways to create temporary motivation and move away from being well and thus healthy.6 Presence has been shown to improve a sense of calm and confidence when faced with challenges7.
With presence, you keep your attention in the present moment, and make the subtle adjustments that only you can make to ensure exercise is a positive experience and connected to your passions every time.
Movement science tells us that your body is unique. It will respond differently than other bodies to exercise, and your response to exercise will vary depending on many factors including sleep, stress, nutrition, hydration, etc. You are the only one who knows how your body feels moment to moment and that makes you the most knowledgeable trainer for your own body.
Using mindful self-compassion when you exercise helps you listen to and trust your body so you can tap into that wealth of knowledge that only you have.8 Presence does not mean you cannot multitask exercise, it means you choose where to put your attention while you exercise, based on what will lead to being well now. As a bonus, you gain skills of mindfulness and self-compassion that help with other healthy habits too.
When exercise is passion-driven, a positive experience, and done with presence, exercise is more likely to return you to the state of being well, where you feel and function your best and you stay motivated with the greatest of ease.
- Teixeira PJ, Carraça EV, Markland D, Silva MN, Ryan RM. Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012;9:78. Published 2012 Jun 22. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-9-78
- Roy Oman & Edward McAuley (1993) Intrinsic Motivation and Exercise Behavior, Journal of Health Education, 24:4, 232-238, DOI: 10.1080/10556699.1993.10610052
- McArdle, William D., Katch, Frank I.Katch, Victor L. (2014) Exercise physiology :nutrition, energy, and human performance Baltimore, MD : Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & WilkinsContrepois K, Wu S, Moneghetti KJ, et al. Molecular Choreography of Acute Exercise. Cell. 2020;181(5):1112-1130.e16. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.043
- Habits Smith KS, Graybiel AM. Habit formation. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2016;18(1):33‐43.
- Schuman-Olivier Z, Trombka M, Lovas DA, et al. Mindfulness and Behavior Change. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2020;28(6):371-394. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000277
- Biber, D.D. Exercise Identity, Self-Regulatory Efficacy, and Self-Compassion Prepared for Psychological Studies. Psychol Stud 65, 261–269 (2020).
- Cuddy, Amy and Schultz, Jack and Fosse, Nathan, P-curving A More Comprehensive Body of Research on Postural Feedback Reveals Clear Evidential Value For ‘Power Posing’ Effects: Reply to Simmons and Simonsohn (November 6, 2017). Forthcoming in Psychological Science.
- Bigliassi M, Bertuzzi R. Exploring the Use of Meditation as a Valuable Tool to Counteract Sedentariness. Front Psychol. 2020;11:299. Published 2020 Feb 25. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00299 Dweck, Carol S.. Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success. New York : Ballantine Books, 2008. Print.