The Real Reason Your Hard Work Isn't Paying Off
There is a woman who has been coming to my HIIT exercise classes for over three years. Self-admittedly, she hates it. She is in her fifties and, also by her own acknowledgement, could stand to lose some weight. To her credit, she’s consistently shown up to exercise three days a week for three years. But despite putting in the work, she hasn’t lost a pound. Why?
The Licensing Effect
The answer may lie in something called the licensing effect. It turns out what might be the most important exercise variable isn’t efficiency of calories burned, your heart rate, or whether you’re working muscle or doing cardio, but whether you actually enjoy it.
This is the premise of the licensing effect. When we enjoy exercise and perceive it as fun or leisure, we tend to make better lifestyle choices, particularly when it comes to food. Conversely, when exercise is perceived as work, we make poorer choices.
The science behind the licensing effect suggests individuals reward themselves for previous work efforts like exercise with hedonistic choices (for example, ice cream) as opposed to utilitarian choices (vegetables). But it isn’t just the work effort that our brains process. It’s how we perceive the work that specifically triggers the hedonistic choice versus the utilitarian one. Simply put, if your brain perceives fitness as fun, studies show you are less likely to pursue the hedonistic choice. When you perceive exercise as work, it’s on to the ice cream.
Exercise as Work
Many of us feel we simply have to suck it up and get our exercise done, just like going to work. That parallel between exercise and a job is understandable. If you want to have a sense of purpose and a good quality of life, the odds are that you will have to have some sort of job. Similarly, with fitness, if you want to enjoy health and a good quality of life, odds are also high you will have to move frequently.
But your job is more than a means to an end. It can also be a means to fulfillment, happiness, and purpose. Exercise, too, can be a lot more than burning calories or building muscle. Furthermore, the science on the licensing effect tells us that the most important variable with exercise is whether or not you like it. Let’s examine that science.
4 Ways to Make Fitness Fun
Having fun with your workouts might seem like a stretch, so here are four ways to avoid the licensing effect and find a greater sense of satisfaction and enjoyment.
1. Break the Cycle
One of the human paradoxes is the relation between habit and success. On the one hand, habits create success. On the other hand, breaking a habit by adding variety spices up your routine and makes it more enjoyable. Studies corroborate such a variety/enjoyment connection with exercise. Research from the University of Florida at Gainesville showed those exercisers who incorporated variety in to their routines had better retention and the most reported satisfaction compared to those who did the same workout each session. The moral of the story is clear – when it comes to both enjoyment and sticking with exercise, switching it up is crucial.
2. Remember Misery Loves Company
Studies show that when we show up to the gym with a partner or friend we are more likely to stick with exercise. Accountability is a factor in this, but so is fun. After all, it’s nice to have friends to share the pain with. One word of caution here – be careful not to limit yourself to just one workout buddy. If and when that partner quits, you may find yourself without a reason to hit the gym, trail, or dojo.
3. Get Outside
A study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology confirmed that exercising outdoors contributed to a greater improvement in mental well-being than indoor exercise. Participants recorded a greater sense of enjoyment and satisfaction when exercising in nature. Still not everyone lives in or near the great outdoors. Commuting to work on foot or on a bike, participating in outdoor activities with friends, or taking a daily walk with the dog may do the trick.
4. Explore Your True Nature
Finding out if you’re a natural introvert or extrovert may help you determine the best exercise program for you. Here’s a hint – it doesn’t have to do with whether you’re outgoing or understated. Instead, a natural extrovert feels a heightened sense of energy and fulfillment from group activities, whereas big crowds suck the energy right out of a true introvert.
The book Quiet by Susan Cain is a great read on the subject. She explains, “The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the reward it brings.” Cain asserts that determining your true state can help you find your flow.
Change Your Expectations
The client who comes to my exercise classes shows up regularly and consistently to an activity she despises. But her results are poor and she constantly complains, which isn’t fun for anybody. While I am happy help anyone who shows up, people who hate exercise fight a losing battle due to the licensing effect. For exercise haters, a better use of time would be to find movement their body likes.
Whether fitness is fun or not is up for debate. Everyone has his or her own take as to what constitutes fun. The key is either to change your perception of exercise or find what naturally suits you.
For me, I like the way a barbell feels in my hand. I like the sound of my leather boxing glove makes when it hits the bag just right. I like the feeling of endorphins from doing burpees or a set of heavy squats. But that’s me. You might like a walk through the woods or a long bike ride on a winding country road.
As the licensing effect proves, the long-term success of an exercise program comes down to the simple fact of whether you like it or not.
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1. Khan, U. and Dhar, R. "Licensing effect in consumer choice." Journal of Marketing Research 43: 259–266. 2006.
2. Crum, A. J., and Langer, E. J. "Mind-set matters: exercise and the placebo effect." Psychological Science 18: 165–171. 2007.
3. Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishing, 2012.
4. J. Thompson Coon, et al. "Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review." Environmental Science & Technology, 2011.
5. Janelle, Christopher. “Adding Variety To An Exercise Routine Helps Increase Adherence.” University Of Florida, (Oct 24, 2000).
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