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How to trick yourself into getting more exercise, according to a psychologist

UVic researcher Ryan Rhodes studies how people stick to — and falter on — their exercise goals. At a time when many people are starting to drop off on their New Year's resolutions, Rhodes shares tips on how you can stick to your routine.

Exercise researcher Ryan Rhodes shares tips on how you can stick to your exercise routine

Working out can be a tough habit to get into, but there are ways to sway your mind into making it happen. (Kena Betancur/Getty )

With 2017 being just a few weeks old, many people might start to flounder with some of their New Year's resolutions.

Chief among those good intentions that fall by the wayside is to get more exercise. According to psychologist Ryan Rhodes, falling off the wagon can be pretty easy.

"It tends to be about 70 per cent of people who form these New Year's resolutions start failing," Rhodes told host Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North by Northwest. "If we could wrap physical activity into a pill, it would probably the most prescribed medication."

Rhodes is also the director of the Behavioural Medicine Lab at the University of Victoria. His research focuses on what keeps people exercising, and why some people don't keep it up — despite their best intentions.

While he says exercise is associated with the reduction of depression, anxiety, chronic heart problems, diabetes and even certain forms of cancer, there are three factors that limit people from enjoying these benefits.

However, there are tricks to overcome them.

1. Motivation

Motivation often doesn't mesh with what you experience in the gym, says Rhodes. (Supplied)

There are a number of reasons to want to start exercising: to look good, to lose weight, to feel healthy, or even all of the above.

But Rhodes says there's a disconnect between our motivations and what we actually experience when we start working out.

"The exercise experience is not always a fun experience — you have to take your body out of rest. And research looking at a dose of physical activity shows that almost everybody enjoys [it] when it's over."

While public health guidelines suggest 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, Rhodes says it's important to not be too hard on yourself if you want to make a habit of getting your daily dose.

"That hard workout that you had where you got it done, but it was very painful, is going to come back and haunt you next time. You're not going to be that interested in pushing your body through that again," he said.

"Don't push yourself so hard that it's unpleasant because you'll remember that, and it can make a difference."

2. Planning

Exercise undoubtedly takes time out of your day, so you'll need to become a master planner. (Shutterstock)

Rhodes says in order to become committed to physical activity, you need to become a master planner — and that means making time for exercise.

"Lack of time is often the number one barrier to physical activity, but time is complicated. Because what many people mean is that, 'With the time I have, that's not what I want to do with it.'"

Rhodes says his research has found that many people on more habitual exercise schedules are generally on the same time crunches as everyone else.

"You have to be honest with yourself about priorities," he said.

While many people's 'priorities' include binge-watching Netflix, Rhodes says many successful exercises actually combine the two activities.

He suggests turning on the television with your workout, so you can catch up on your favourite programs without losing valuable exercise time.

3. Turning exercise into a reflex

Building exercise into your routine is hard, but once it's done, you'll get your physical activity in without having to motivate yourself to do it. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Rhodes says the third trick is the hardest: trying to turn physical activity into a reflex, or a habit.

"A habit is a psychological construct where a behaviour starts to become tied to certain contextual cues," he says.

So when exercise becomes a habit, it becomes something brought on by cues, rather than motivation. 

He suggests finding a space to build the habit into your routine, like going for a walk after dinner, or riding your bike to work.

Eventually, the act seems to mold seamlessly into your life, rather than something that you have to set aside and make time for, Rhodes says.

To listen to the full interview, click here