How to Make Exercise Enjoyable
I believe exercise is a fundamental habit that everyone should participate in. I put it in the same category as brushing teeth, sleeping, and drinking water. Unfortunately, there's a much lower adherence rate for exercise compared to other fundamental habits. For example, 54% of American adults brush their teeth twice a day (I know--that should be MUCH higher) compared to just 20.6% of Americans meet the minimum exercise recommendations [1,2].
As previously discussed, time is a big factor in why people don't stick with exercise. Another issue is motivation. People often exercise for external motivations: to win a weight loss or steps competition, get praise from others, or to look good in a bathing suit. These sources of motivation aren't wrong; they're just fleeting .
What's a lasting form of motivation? Intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something because of "an experienced sense of enjoyment of, and/or inherent interest in, the activity ." In other words, you are motivated to do something because it's fun or deeply satisfying.
How can you become intrinsically motivated to exercise? How can you make exercise FUN?
Intrinsic Motivation for Exercise
In the early 1970s, psychology researchers Dr. Edward Deci and Dr. Richard Ryan identified a recipe for building intrinsic motivation. This recipe, known as the Self-Determination Theory, stated that three psychological needs should be fulfilled to create intrinsic motivation .
The needs are the following:
Autonomy. You have at least some control in the activity.
Competence. You believe you are effective in the activity.
Relatedness. You have a connection with others around the habit.
When all three are present in an activity, such as exercise, the activity should become enjoyable or deeply satisfying. The question then becomes, "how do we execute each part of the Self-Determination Theory in a workout program?" Here are some examples:
Autonomy. If you work with a trainer, pick some of the exercises. If you have a favorite type of exercise, add that to your workout program on a few days each week. Keep your own exercise journal. Work out for a shorter period of time on a day when you don't feel like exercising.
Competence. You can build competence by setting and achieving goals. Set goals for each day or each week. When getting started, make the goals very achievable (e.g. walk for 10 minutes today, or strength train twice this week). Also, take notes on what you've done well. For example, if you work out three days a week, celebrate that success (instead of focusing on the four days that you didn't exercise).
Relatedness. Walk or go to the gym with a friend. Become accountability partners with a friend or family member, where you both check in with each other regularly on how exercise habits are going. Talk with people at the gym. Learn their names, develop connections with them, and talk to them when you go to the gym. Join a Facebook group. Post on social media about your exercise habits. Hire an online coach and keep in regular touch with them.
I don't think exercise has to be enjoyable for people to stick with it. However, enjoying exercise can be useful for some to develop the exercise habit. If you feel adding more "fun" to exercise would help you stick to a routine, then take the following actions:
Give yourself some control in the planning and execution of the workout (autonomy).
Build your skills in and confidence towards exercising by creating progressively challenging goals, checking them off, and by paying attention to your successes (competence).
Connect with others around your exercise habit, such as joining groups on social media, connecting with people at the gym, having a workout buddy, or hiring a trainer (relatedness).
Sunstar. (2021). Global Healthy Thinking Report. 2021 Oral Health Awareness Survey. Retrieved from https://www.sunstar.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Sunstar-Global-Healthy-Thinking-Report-2021.pdf
Harris, C.D., Watson, K.B., Carlson, S.A., Fulton, J.E., & Dorn, J.M. (2011). Adult participation in aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activities -- United States, 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 62(17), 326-330.
Kinnafick, F.E., Ntoumani, C.T., & Duda, J.L. (2014). Physical activity adoption to adherence, lapse, and dropout: a self-determination theory perspective. Qualitative Health Research, 1-13.
Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.