It should come as no surprise that your body and brain like to take the easy way out, choosing rest over exertion whenever possible to conserve precious energy. Our bodies evolved in a very different environment than the one in which we currently find ourselves trying to survive. For the vast majority of human existence, food has been scarce. We hoarded calories whenever possible, and expended energy only when it was needed to survive, to search for food or to outrun a lion.
For most humans, the modern experience is quite different. We have so many calories swirling around us that we no longer need to hoard them, we need to use them up. Those calories give us plenty of energy, and we no longer need to conserve our strength for later. However, our bodies and brains often prompt us to behave in ways that suited our ancestors. This is why you reach for the chocolate cake instead of the fruit salad, and take a nap on the couch instead of going to aerobics. Our ancestors would be proud – you are consuming extra calories and conserving energy. But the behaviors that suited our species 50,000 years ago no longer apply, and if you can learn to circumvent your body’s natural responses to age-old dilemmas, you will have a healthier life. Here’s how.
1. Don’t trust your willpower. Your smart, conscious brain knows that you need to run another mile to reach your exercise goals for the day. Your subconscious brain wants to head home and call it a night – and your subconscious brain controls around 94 percent of your actions. We have all experienced the inner battle between your head (logical reasoning) and your heart (emotions). Some people see it as a devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. However you experience this inner conflict between what you want to do and what you know you should do, rest assured that your emotional brain is usually stronger than your logical brain.
Help your logical brain out by creating outside parameters than don’t rely on your willpower, which is a finite resource. Bring a friend along on your run to hold you accountable, or hire a personal trainer who will. It is impossible to “beat” your emotional brain with logic 100 percent of the time, so you can also appeal to this side of your willpower by setting up pleasurable rewards. Throw your emotional brain a bone, and you’ll find it easier to do what has to be done.
2. Realize that most people don’t like to exercise. But they do anyway. Sure, there are those fitness freaks that log hours upon hours at the gym, bouncing out of bed to run ten miles every morning or hitting up yoga class every night. But for the vast majority of human beings, exercise is a chore. It’s not fun, and it takes precious time out of your day. But people do it because they have usurped their natural emotions with their logical brain. Don’t assume that you are alone in your desire to stay in bed, because you are not. Just like everyone else, you must work to counteract your body’s preferred response – to rest and conserve energy. Expect your body to resist your efforts to expend energy, and you will be ready for the inevitable emotional pushback.
3. Reward yourself. My dog doesn’t do tricks because they keep his mind and body agile, to please his human or to practice his skills. He does tricks to get treats, case closed. Humans are not that far away from dogs; all mammals respond to incentives. While being healthy and exercising to improve your body should be its own incentive, let’s face it – it’s not. Make plans to reward yourself when you meet your exercise goals, even small ones. Setting up a system of rewards after your work is an effective way to keep your body going when it wants to stop.
Image: Mike Baird