How to Enjoy Exercise (9 Steps)

As the saying goes, “Nothing changes if you change nothing.” If you want to finally quit the grueling grind, jump off the struggle bus, and enjoy the juicy benefits of exercise, you’ll have to learn how to like it. That won’t magically happen on its own. Here are 9 steps to (finally) enjoy exercise and change the game for good.

Step 1 – Go Goalless (for Now)

Blasphemy! If having a fitness goal were truly the solution, wouldn’t we all be model fit by now? Goals have become part of the furniture of fitness, but they mean nothing if the process isn’t enjoyable. Postpone goal setting until you hone an enjoyable process.

Step 2 – Say “No Way” to “No Pain, No Gain”

If you go in believing it’s going to suck, it probably will. Of course, exercise is effortful, but not all effort is the same. It also doesn’t have to hurt to work. However, if you think you can’t have “gains” without pain, you might never like it.

Step 3 – Know Your “Type”

The analogy I use in Feel Like It goes something like this: What if you treated fitness as a relationship? We all want a loyal marriage to exercise, but if you’re getting stuck in a series of short-term flings, you probably haven’t found your type yet. To get there, you must first understand that you even have a type and that the gym might not be it. Don’t blame yourself though. This is about compatibility, not some flaw of yours.

Step 4 – Try New Things

How can you ever find love if you never play the field? We spend more time shopping for the right trainers to wear than the physical activities we commit to. Insane right? There are dozens and dozens and dozens of options available to you. It’s time to stop choosing what’s familiar (even when it’s never worked) and try something new. I like to say “if you can see it, you can be it”, so create a “try” plan (i.e., what, when, where). Need help? Join the TryPact. It’ll get you there.

Step 5 – Think About Atmosphere

When you try new things, you’ll quickly see how a change in atmosphere can change the experience entirely. Maybe it’s not running that you hate, but it’s running on a treadmill. Maybe it’s not hiking that you hate, but hiking on a StairMaster. There’s more and more evidence that getting outside enhances enjoyment. If you’re truly not an outdoorsy person, you can change the atmosphere by making exercise more social, like adding group fitness to your routine or including friends in your endeavors.

Step 6 – Bust Up Binary Thinking

We won’t always feel like exercising, but we can feel like it more often. That’s a skill. Part of that skill is creating options for yourself. If you don’t, you’re at risk for making fitness a binary decision (you’re spinning today or you’re doing nada). For example, after playing the field, you might learn you like yoga, HIIT, and running outside. Great! When the decision comes to get sweating, you can choose the one you feel like doing the most. That’s usually the one you’ll enjoy the most too. Of course, if you want to push that willpower button and drag yourself to an intense HIIT class instead of a more peaceful yoga session, cool. But you’ll never go wrong by following what you’re attracted to.

Step 7 – Manage Intensity Better

Create quality and you’ll crave quantity. The most motivating quality of an exercise experience is the feel of it. Not only should you choose uplifting atmospheres in which to exercise, keep the intensity at enjoyable levels too. Push your boundaries too often (or cross them) and you might end up with an aversion to exercise. You don’t want that.

Step 8 – Monitor What Matters

I often get asked what I think about fitness trackers. Here’s my canned answer: as long as the numbers are tethered to activities you like. Tracking can be a terrific strategy, but unto itself, no fitness tracker can transform your motivation. That will always come down to your activity choices and your feel management. Want to add something new to your monitoring strategy? Keep track of enjoyment using the ‘Yes drill’ I discuss on my podcast, Happily Ever Active.

Step 9 – Add Goals

When you fixate on the finish, it’s easy to overlook the eight evidence-based steps above. You might even believe that willpower is the essential skill for active living. It’s not.  If you makeover the motivational capacity of your routine, the time is right to sprinkle in some goals. You might set a performance goal like increasing strength, or a process goal like how many times you exercise each month. Make them meaningful and realistic. When added to an enjoyable process, goals like these can have an nice enhancing quality.

But make no mistake, the exercise experience matters. Take control of it and you’ll finally create something built for the long haul.

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Dr. Kelly Doell is the author of Feel Like It: Makeover Your Motivation to Move and hosts a weekly podcast on the mental side of active living called Happily Ever Active.