Home » 21 Day Mini-Course: Establish an Exercise Habit » Day 3: Decide What You Want To Feel

Day 3: Decide What You Want To Feel

Jumping Jacks
“We like to think of ourselves as reasonable creatures, but logic doesn’t motivate us nearly as much as our emotions do. We approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.
–Michelle Segar, Phd, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness

Today I want you to ask yourself not what you want to achieve in this program, but what, in your heart of hearts, you want to feel. Our goal is to identify a “why” for exercising that will motivate you over the long haul.

Also: We have to let go of our logical reasons for exercising. Why? Because research shows that good, solid, logical reasons for exercising — like wanting to lower our blood pressure or ward off certain cancers — don’t actually motivate us to exercise over the long haul.

So look back at yesterday’s worksheets. Which SINGLE benefit of exercise feels the most rewarding to you in the short term? Look for positive emotions or feelings.

Shooting for a feeling-state that you want more of (maybe you want more happiness, confidence, or calm) will take you down a different path than setting your sights on a particular achievement (like losing 20 pounds) or something important but vague, abstract, or far off in the future (like getting healthier or lowering your cholesterol).

Tons of research shows that emotions are more motivating—and far more rewarding—than achievement goals in the long run. This means that feelings will best reinforce the behavior that we’d like to establish as a habit.

Maybe you really want to lose weight, for example, because that will make you healthier. If you set a goal to “lose 20 pounds” and then join a gym, how will that make you feel? At first, you might feel great, because you’ve just made a healthy decision for yourself. But what if you already know that gym classes make you feel self-conscious, or weak, or just plain chubby? If that’s the case, you’ll likely stop making it to the gym, which will likely prompt feelings of anxiety and guilt. ALL of these feeling states are unmotivating and uncomfortable, which will make it easy for you to ditch your exercise plan (and your gym membership).

I’ve joined gyms, run marathons, and signed up for tennis lessons. I love skiing, I hate swimming, and I love biking but only on paved bike trails. I really love dancing, particularly swing and lindy-hop, but I haven’t done that regularly in a while (well, really ever). I’ve spent a lot of time on the trail behind my house with my friends and my dog and just walking on a treadmill binging on netflix (sometimes not even breaking a sweat).

Some of these activities make me feel good in the short term; some make me feel a little bad. For example, walking tends to make me feel calm, energized, and blissfully happy. Running tends to make me feel old, out of shape, and achey.

HomeworkWhat To Do Today

Your task today is to decide on a single overarching thing that you want to feel when you exercise, and then to identify the physical activities that already make you feel that way.

Some parameters:

You really do need to pick just one motivator. Trust me on this one; the research is clear that more is not better here. A long list of reasons to exercise will not be as effective as going for a single emotion (or category of emotions). I walk every day because it makes me feel calm, energized, and happy. While this is technically more than one emotion, it is really the same motivator–I feel less stressed when I walk. I’m not telling myself I’m walking to lose weight, be healthy, AND feel calm/energized/happy.

Your “reason” for exercising needs to be a rewarding feeling that you experience when you are exercising, or at the very least, in the same day that you exercise.

You need to leave the health benefits of exercise out of this. Seriously. Although the gazillions of health reasons for exercising seem like really good, logical grounds for getting moving, solid science shows they won’t motivate us over the long haul. Again, trust me on this one. The promise that you will be healthier in the future will not motivate you to get off the couch and out for a run in the rain after the excitement of beginning a new program fades.

I’m going to say it again: logical, non-emotional, and long-term reasons for exercising are ineffective. This probably isn’t the first time you’ve tried to get yourself into a long-term exercise routine; most people need to look no farther than their own past for evidence of this.


Task #1: Fill out the column labeled “How do you want to feel?” of the “Decide How You Want to Feel” worksheet in your workbook.

Task #2: Next, tackle the second column (the one labeled Actions & Behaviors): The physical activities that ALREADY lead you to feel what you want to feel. The important thing here is that the activities you list are ones you already have experience with; we human beings tend to be truly terrible at predicting how something will make us feel. So instead of imagining how an activity might make you feel, go with what you already know.

Here’s an example of how we frequently go wrong:

Say I’d like to feel less stressed and more relaxed as a result of my new exercise habit. I know that exercising in general has made me feel less stressed in the past, and running is a good, efficient way to exercise.

So what would be a good way to run more? Let’s see…I could train for half marathon! Fun! Ambitious! I love race days, and I love ambitious goals! (See the mistake I just made here? I strayed from what actually makes me feel less stressed to an idea I have about what makes for good exercise.)

Before I start researching destination marathons, I’d do well to stop myself and ask: How do I actually feel when I’m training for a race? Meaning, how have I felt when I’ve done this in the past? Here’s my honest answer: I tend to feel burdened by the time commitment. And arthritic in my left hip. And soul-sinking dread before each run.

Can we just make a pact right now that we won’t take on new habits that are going to make us feel burdened, arthritic, and filled with dread? Because that is just a recipe for failure, people.

Fortunately, I can think of activities that actually DO make me feel less stressed: taking walks with my dog, hikes with my friends, and watching TV while walking on a treadmill. Because those are activities that already reliably make me feel the way I want to feel, I’ll add these to the second column of the “Decide how you want to feel” worksheet.