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  • Writer's pictureSandhya Gokal

From Mundane to Magical Part 1 - Making Exercise habits fun (2023)

Updated: Oct 3, 2023


In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and *snap* the job’s a game! - Mary Poppins

All games share an essential element.

If they stop being fun, the player will quit.


Sounds simple right:? And logical. Games are not essential activities, they are done purely for pleasure.


When I was a kid, there was this painting book where all you needed was a paintbrush and a glass of water. When you painted the water onto the page, marvellous things happened! Colours seemed to appear as if they were magic. It was hours of entertainment in 1 little book. It was unpredictable - I had to wait to see what colours were going to appear. It tickled my sense of creativity. And I felt like an actual painter, just without the paint. Essentially…It was fun! To me, it became a game to test my skills of “painting” within the lines and creating beautiful art.


As I got older, and started going to school, I learnt about things like oil pastels, watercolours and acrylic paints. So painting with water became mundane. It became commonplace. It lost it’s sense of intrigue. So the book was discarded, lost amongst the myriad of childhood artefacts littering the garage shelves.


Creating enjoyable experiences hinges on understanding the key elements that make an activity fun. Renowned gamification expert YuKai Chou, known for developing the Octalysis framework and Octalysis Prime, identifies eight core drivers that contribute to the enjoyment of any activity. These elements, which include Epic meaning, empowerment, unpredictability, social influence, loss and avoidance, scarcity, ownership, and achievement, have been widely recognized in research. According to Chou, the presence of at least one of these elements is crucial for making an activity engaging and enjoyable


So what if we applied these same principles to things that we deem necessary, but boring?


Exercising. Eating well. Going to work.


All arduous tasks that generally aren’t associated with fun. In fact, the words associated with these activities are often “boring”, “hateful”, “draining”, and a heartfelt groan (more of a sound than a word, but commonplace). I’ve plucked these tasks because they are the ones most commonly pushed aside for other, less pressing but more fun activities. (except going to work, but that’s because there’s an external driver there)


Why are these activities so difficult to stick to?

And how can we make them more fun?


This will be a three part series. Today we will focus on…..


Exercise



Hypothesis:


Making exercise habits fun will make it much more likely that exercise will be done on a consistent basis, in line with the national recommendations.



The weekly recommendation for exercise according to the Australian health department is 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. Many of the governing health authorities recommend a combination of vigorous aerobic activity (playing sports, cardio workouts or running are just a few examples) and moderate to high intensity muscle strengthening activities.


Why Exercise habits are difficult to change


There are many reasons why people don’t stick to exercise routines. Here are a couple of the most common ones.


Low self-confidence:



Baby crawling

One of the most common reasons I hear for people not engaging in exercise activities is “I just don’t want to look stupid.” Going to the gym and struggling with the exercise can lower self-esteem and incite shame.


According to Brene Brown, a leading experts on emotional states, shame is NOT a great motivator. Thinking you have to be perfect at something is actually a function of shame! Perfectionism is driven by the thought “what will people think?”


BUSTED:

The key to building confidence is starting. According to Tony Schwartz, the CEO of the Energy Project, deliberate practice almost always trumps natural aptitude. Think about a baby learning to walk. They fall, they get up, they rinse and repeat. In the words of the British rock band Chumbawamba - “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you are never gonna keep me down!”.


Confidence is a big part of self-esteem. Nathaniel Branden, the author of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, writes, “when we have confidence in our ability to..act effectively, we can persevere when faced with difficult challenges. We succeed more often than we fail…We expect more of life and ourselves.” Once the confidence ball starts rolling, it becomes an avalanche!


Confidence also comes down to self-trust and self-discipline. Self-discipline is the ability to do what you say you’re going to do, no matter the obstacles in your way. Self-trust is firmly staying true to yourself and honouring your own thoughts, feelings and experiences without constantly questioning them or needing external validation.


Although confidence, self-trust and self-discipline seem almost inextricably entwined, there is a clear hierarchy. Self-discipline leads to self-trust, which in turn leads to confidence.


As well, self-discipline requires a huge amount of mental power to start, like one of those old lawn-mowers where you had to pull a tab quite vigorously to get the motor to start. Self-trust builds slowly, and confidence tags along amiably. This explains why using self-discipline alone can lead to shame spirals - failing to do what you say you're going to do can cause the trust you have in your abilities to crumble.


No energy:


woman lying on bed with hair covering face

Exercise is a bit of a paradox. To engage, you need energy. If you don’t have energy, it’s hard to start. "I'm too tired to exercise" is a ridiculously overused phrase. However, exercise is also one of the top contributors to high energy levels!


BUSTED:

Dr Toni Golen and Dr Hope Ricciotti outline this phenomenon in the Harvard Health Publishing. When you exercise, your body is spurred into action and produces more mitochondrial cells


More mitochondria = more energy.


Additionally, when you exercise, you tend to breathe in more oxygen which increases the oxygen circulating around your body, which supports mitochondria energy production. More oxygen also makes your body use energy more efficiently (mmm efficiency).


You also get a nice boost in hormone levels. Two in particular contribute to the high energy levels after exercise.


Endorphins are released in response to the stress and yes, the pain of exercising. They work hard to relieve pain, reduce the stress and improve your mood. Interestingly, endorphins are one of the reasons why exercise is so good for mental health, even though they do not pass through the blood-brain barrier.


Endocannabinoids are the hormone that contributes to the “post-runner’s high” phenomenon. Endorphins have been given credit for the euphoric state by popular culture while these bad boys take a back seat and giggle secretly. Endorphins looked confused for a minute (“hang on, I didn’t have anything to do with that!”) but then smile and wave and accept the award because everyone likes to be recognised.


Endocannabinoids easily travel to the brain, and flick the switches that promote feelings of calm and reduce anxiety. The mechanisms in the endocannabinoid system are still being researched, but it is theorised that these hormones are released in response to imbalance in the body.


Something that really tickles me is the origin of these 2 words.


Endorphins cite morphine - an opiate pain reliever


Endocannabinoids cite cannabis


So your body actually MAKES hormones and contains systems with these two things that are highly regulated drugs in the external world. How cool is that?! (Pharmacist nerd alert)

cartoon pharmacist female with medications around

So back to the two mischief makers.


Endorphins help your body deal with the stress of exercising (increased heart rate and heavy breathing etc)


Endocannabinoids help your body become more balanced after you finish, and make you more relaxed.


This is a very simplified explanation of the two, but this post isn’t solely about them, so they can slink back to their seats.






No time


There is only a finite amount of time in the day (24 hours, to be precise). Fitting in exercise everyday is often pushed to the side, because it is an activity that requires a rather large time margin (the amount of time needed on either side of an activity for admin, housekeeping and general tasks).


Although a workout may be 30 minutes, accounting for the OTHER things involved like getting dressed, travelling to the gym or park, getting equipment ready, coordinating meetups and even filling a water bottle often makes exercising seem like such an overwhelming task.


As well as this, people with high pressure occupations and people with high pressure needy individuals (ahem, children) often find that a 30 minute block can be hard to achieve, having to steal moments here and there for me-time.


BUSTED:

An hour on social media can fly by in the blink of an eye. 10 minutes on the treadmill can seem like forever. Time constraints can definitely be restricting, but if exercising is a priority, the time will be found. Often other resources are needed to make exercise a priority such as baby-sitters, access to showers and meal preparation.


To combat the lack of time, use a technique called time boxing from the Agile methodology. Time boxing involves allocating time to a particular project (in this case, exercising) and focusing completely on that task in that time window. Then you review


If we apply this to exercise, here’s how it would look.


I’m going to set aside 1 hour for exercise. In this hour, I will get changed, fill my drink bottle, go the gym, do my workout, stop halfway to wipe the sweat from my eyes and stop hyperventilating (coz obviously I jumped into a pump class with no prior experience), push through the last push up with my trembling arms screaming “for the love of all that is good, stop this foolishness!”, weakly wash my body in the showers and trudge home, take my shoes off and plop on the couch. The end of my hour is signalled by the moment my butt touches the sweet soft leather of the couch.


It works out pretty nicely in my head, and I’m pumped! So I start, exactly as planned. But I forgot to account for traffic. I also forgot that Chatty Sally takes this class, so signing in at the gym takes forever, and I’m late to the class. By the time class has ended, the showers are all taken up, so I have to sit around waiting, counting the sweat drops as they fall and form a puddle at my feet. By the time I get home to my couch, one and a half hours has passed.


I review what happened, and decide that next time I go to the gym, I will allocate one and half hours to the task. If my project is to become fit, then dedicating that time to gym will probably help me achieve success. So I decide that it is a priority, put it in my calendar, and move on.


There are plenty of other tried and tested methods. My favourite is incidental exercise - exercise done while doing other tasks.


  • Hanging clothes? Do squats while hanging your undergarments on those lower rungs.

  • Vacuuming? Lunge like you mean it.

  • Going up (or down?) in the shopping centres? Search for the stairs or ramps instead of taking the escalators. (There’s an awesome experiment that was done in Stockholm with fun stairs. Watch it here. I now only take stairs because of this…SO COOL)


We spend time on things that we value. Once we get over the initial pain of trying to fit exercise in, it becomes indispensable because of the aforementioned benefits.


Low fitness levels:


To exercise, you must have a certain level of fitness. But to be fit, you need to exercise. I do love my paradoxes.


BUSTED:

Here’s the truth: You may feel too old, too overweight, too unfit to exercise. But there are exercises for EVERY LEVEL. I have participated in workouts where I was sweating to the bone but also, I have sat on a fitness ball and breathed for 30 minutes as a workout for pelvic floor.


The truth is, with the rise of social media and smartphones came the tidal wave of workouts in all colours, shapes and sizes. If you don't feel fit, choose a low intensity workout with minimal equipment and low sweat potential. As your fitness level improves, you can progress to harder and harder workouts.


If you REALLY fear workouts, there's always the tried and tested body workout - the good ol' walkaroo.


How to make exercise fun:


Now for the challenge. How to turn this mundane monster into a sparkly diamond.


As in any battle, we first have to stock up on weapons and tactical equipment.


So the first step is to get some kick-ass clothes.


Lol, kidding.


Let's build our gameplan, using the Octalysis principles


Gamifying your exercise routines - 4 actionable steps to making exercise habits fun!


Step 1: Epic Purpose


First, figure out WHY exercise is important to you. What makes it so vital? Give it an epic purpose.


  • Is it so you can run around with your kids?

  • Does exercise give you a warm glow and make your skin the fairest in all the land?

  • Have you got a secret desire to become a lean, mean fighting machine and swash a path through the exercise industry?

  • Do you want to be a fashion icon, and being toned and muscular will give you the confidence to flaunt your style?


Giving exercise this kind of purpose may seem silly. But the truth is, connecting your goal to a higher purpose gives it a power unlike any other. In addition, if you can make that purpose affect even one other person, the chances of success are exponentially higher.


Step 2: Be Creative


3 women energetically dancing with hair on left

Find the most epically fun way to do it, and own it. Make that your go to exercise. See if you can become an informal expert, have a place where everybody knows your name and where you can use your creativity to suggest workout options!


There are a million ways to exercise. Here are some examples


  • Dance classes have become increasingly popular. Zumba comes in all different flavours now! If you like heights, aerial fitness has feats of flexibility and strength! If you are feeling a little bit naughty, why not try pole dancing, or burlesque?

  • If team sports are the way to go, joining a team is a great way to meet new people, improve your endurance and get better hand-eye coordination. The social aspect of team sports can be highly alluring as well

  • If you work better alone, why not set challe ges for yourself? One of the smallest and easiest ways to do this is by running, and setting distance, time, speed and endurance goals for myself. Beating your own challenges can ensure a huge dopamine rush, and make you feel great all day!

  • If you aren't that mobile, try getting a gym ball and doing the exercises included. Not only are they gentle enough to not break a sweat, they are also super relaxing, and great for sleep.


Whatever you choose, find the fun element. Find the smile moments - those grin moments where you don't even realise you're smiling.


Step 3: Gather your resources and make the space your own

gym equipment

Here's where you get a killer outfit (or 3), any equipment you need and a leak proof water bottle. Note: the leak proof water bottle is a MUST. No one likes a leaky spout.


Colour is important. It seems like such a small thing, but by picking colours and textures that you enjoy, you are much more likely to use the equipment. I have a green resistance band that sees much more use than the exercise bike I bought, simply because I love green.


Additionally, displaying the equipment proudly in the space it will be used again increases the chance of exercising! A client of mine moved her dumbbells into her office space and her workout rate went up from 1 time a week to 4 times a week, CONSISTENTLY. The dumbbells served as a gentle reminder of her goal to become more fit.


Think about your favourite game. If the colours are vibrant, sparkly and prominent, the game seems much more fun! If you are a hard core gamer, colour equates to good graphics. A game with poor graphics and horrendous lag time quickly loses its appeal. So good equipment in the place where it's needed is equivalent to great graphics and a fast entry time.


If you are going to use an app for fitness, there are multitudes available. The ones I have personally used are Fit On, Healthy mummy, Get MOM strong and Mindvalley (an education platform which has a number of fitness programs). Whatever you use, make sure you have easy access to it at the time of your workout. Some physiotherapists also provide access to workout apps. The possibilities are endless!


Step 4: Reward yourself


Create a rewards system. Small wins should be celebrated loudly, with gusto and enthusiasm.


By rewarding yourself when you achieve something, you invite the dopamine levels in your body to go through the roof. Dopamine is the hormone in your body directly linked to addiction. If you can use this tendency for goals you actually want, you are on a winning streak. Some apps also have in built rewards like coins earned which can be used elsewhere in the app.


Being addicted to exercising regularly. Can you even imagine that?? How amazing would that be??


Rewards serve another important purpose. Creating a new habit is tough. You are essentially working to make something that is unfamiliar to you, familiar enough that your brain creates a "tunnel highway" - a neural pathway covered in myelin that fires rapidly and requires little to no energy to execute. Habit work like this: you experience a cue. The cue causes your brain to fire up the tunnel highway and act in a way which guarantees success. Then you get a reward.


If your current habit is sitting on the couch watching TV as soon as you get home from work, and the reward is relaxation, then to reroute the brain into a different pathway, you need to change the cue, action, or reward, or even better, all 3.


So, your cue could be putting your sports shoes at the front door. Your action would be exercising. And the reward could be anything you want! An hour kid free time. A glass of wine. Playing a board game. Watching your favourite movie.


By having rewards set up and ready to go, you are giving your brain clear instructions to set up a new neural pathway.


Lastly, having set milestone and set rewards just gives us something to look forward to. If you know that, after 4 weeks of consistently exercising, you get a weekend away to the beach to celebrate...you'd be exercising with enthusiasm and vigour. Set rewards at regular intervals, but beware! Make sure they are in relation to an actual achievement. Giving yourself rewards slowly corrodes your self-trust and can be counter intuitive.


YOU WIN! You've reached the end!


So there you have it. Four steps to making exercise fun. Remember, building habits take time. Give yourself at least 3 months to see success. What other things could you do to make your exercise routines so much fun you race home to get your fit on? Bonus points if you can apply all these principles.


Let me know how you go in the comments below!


References:





Daring Greatly - Brene Brown







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