Some people love to exercise. But plenty more do not, and urging them on with information about how healthy exercise can be hasn’t exactly been shown to sway the masses. Only about half of Americans report meeting the government’s exercise recommendations, so some scientists are exploring another idea: Let’s make exercise feel better. To do that, they’re looking beyond old advice like “find something you enjoy” and instead focusing on approaches that exploit the way we experience exercise.
Most people feel better after they are done exercising, but that does not seem to matter in terms of their future activity, said Ryan Rhodes, a professor of exercise psychology at the University of Victoria who co-authored a review of how people feel during and after exercise. If you want to make exercise enticing, you have to make it more pleasurable. Research by David M. Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at Brown University, and his colleagues has shown that how you feel during exercise predicts both current and future physical activity levels.
The good news is that the feel of exercise can be manipulated. Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson developed the “peak-end rule,” which holds that people judge events not by the overall experience but by some combination of how they feel at the most extreme part and at the end of the event. One example: Kahneman and his colleagues had study subjects immerse their hands in 57-degree water for 60 seconds and, separately, do the same thing with the other hand but tack on an additional 30 seconds while slightly warming the water to a temperature of 59 degrees. Given a choice, the subjects opted to repeat the longer trial. Experiences that end with a bad part are more likely to be recalled as unpleasant than if a miserable part comes toward the beginning, even if the average discomfort is the same.
A typical exercise session, however, tends to feel crappier as time passes, especially if you’re not fit. So researchers Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Zachary Zenko and Dan Ariely wondered what would happen if the usual workout script were flipped. They showed in a study published last year that among 46 adults, those who completed a cycling session structured so the intensity ramped down — providing a positive slope of pleasure — “felt more pleasant after exercise, remembered their exercise to be more pleasant, predicted that future exercise sessions would be more pleasant and enjoyed their exercise more,” said Zenko, a kinesiologist and exercise psychologist at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight. Even though both groups experienced a similar amount of overall pleasure during the session, the ones who finished by winding down their effort enjoyed the workout more and had more pleasant memories of it. More research is needed to see if that could translate into sustained behavior change.
Giving people some control over their own workouts also seems helpful. While exercise pros may feel they have to prescribe a certain intensity for people to get any benefit from a workout, that isn’t necessarily true. “Exercising to feel ‘good’ or exercising to feel ‘fairly good’ result in an intensity that would meet recommended guidelines and if repeated lead to cardiovascular improvement,” said Gaynor Parfitt, an exercise psychologist and professor at the University of South Australia. (“Fairly good” indicates you’re going harder and so is better to shoot for, she added.) She and Ekkekakis, a professor of exercise psychology at Iowa State University, were among the authors of a review of research to this point, noting that when people were given autonomy, they could push themselves harder without seeing their pleasure dip. (There is some inherent pleasure in not being told what to do, apparently.) A 2016 randomized trial of overweight adults by Williams and colleagues also supports self-pacing.
There’s no getting around the fact that exercise can sometimes be painful, particularly when you pass the point at which you can no longer comfortably carry on a conversation, but distraction can help. Research suggests that music and video can make lower-intensity running or cycling more enjoyable and feel easier. At higher intensities, it can at least reduce the unpleasantness, Ekkekakis said, though if you’re pushing yourself to 90 percent of capacity, not even Eminem is likely to make your wind sprints feel great.
No one is saying that the pleasure factor during a workout is the only factor involved in exercise adherence. People who do high-intensity interval training, which alternates periods of hard work with periods of rest, may not be feeling awesome during the hard parts of the workout, but they like the results — or how it makes their workouts more efficient. But for many, particularly those who aren’t already fit, the unpleasantness factor may be so high as to outweigh the time savings or other benefits. If HIIT makes you want to exercise more, bully for you! If it makes you permanently want to curl up like a pill bug, don’t do it.
Using the pleasure principle to get people exercising has its limits, though. People with moderate to severe obesity and the accompanying physical limitations often have a really hard time experiencing exercise as enjoyable, no matter how much you fiddle with the workout, said Ekkekakis. It’s also not clear whether behavior change prompted by increased pleasure might persist. Trials have tracked people for weeks and months, not years, so large, randomized trials are still needed. Another question is whether pleasure is consistently important. Rhodes is exploring whether people who have established exercise habits have a diminished sensitivity to the pleasure or displeasure of exercise. In other words, once you’re used to walking every morning for 20 minutes, maybe it’s less important whether you enjoy it. Once it’s a habit, it may become more like brushing your teeth.
Whether making exercise seem more pleasurable can also help make it a habit remains to be seen, but given the power of what the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges calls “the miracle cure,” it’s worth finding out.
Current recommendations are 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Studies based on activity trackers instead of interviews suggest that the proportion of the population that meets those suggestions is much lower, in the single digits.