So much of the research on exercise motivation boils down to one question: How do you convince yourself to suck it up and go do something you fundamentally dislike? And then keep doing it, regularly, for the rest of your life? Even dedicated athletes, as a study published last year in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found, often spend much of their time on runs thinking about the fact running is really, really hard. That’s, um, not really encouraging news for the rest of us.
Making physical activity more palatable for the exercise-averse is a complicated task. Just giving people the information — hey, exercise is healthy, here’s why you should do it — isn’t actually that effective in getting them to change their behavior, but various studies have uncovered tricks that may do more in pushing people from the couch to the gym. A study published earlier this year, for example, suggests that people will work out if you bribe them to. As Science of Us has previously noted, self-affirmation, the act of thinking about what’s important to you, may help people stay on track with their fitness goals.
And as Live Science reported last week, there’s another technique that’s shown some signs of effectiveness: a form of talk therapy known as acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Rooted in the idea of mindfulness, ACT functions by helping people understand and work through all the things they don’t like about exercise:
ACT teaches mindfulness, which means that it aims to make people more aware of their thoughts and feelings in the current moment. People learn how to accept uncomfortable physical sensations and metaphorically “make room” for these feelings in their bodies, according to a 2015 study of ACT in Australia. They also learn to question whether a thought (such as “Exercise is intolerable”) might be getting in the way of their goals, and learn to see these thoughts for what they really are — just thoughts, as opposed to concrete facts.
Emily Cox-Martin, a psychologist at the University of Colorado who’s studied ACT, explained to LiveScience that the technique “isn’t trying to change people’s thoughts about exercise” — instead, it helps them to grasp how exercise can push them toward their desired lifestyle, using that, rather than the inherent health benefits of physical activity, as motivation. “It helps someone understand what they value in life,” she said, “and then how they can live a life consistent with those values.” Maybe you want to be fit enough to keep up with your partner on runs, say, or strong enough to easily wrangle a bunch of kids and a dog; in those cases, physical activity becomes a means toward a more important end.
Past research has found evidence in support of ACT in other contexts — a 2015 analysis of several past studies found that it was an effective strategy for treating anxiety and depression — but there’s not a ton out there yet about using it for exercise. Still, some preliminary research has shown promise: In an Australian study, published in the British Journal of Health and Psychology, 59 people participated a 12-week walking regimen, and half of them also received a DVD loaded with ACT sessions. At the end of the study, the ACT participants had logged more steps and overall reported more activity than their peers who didn’t use the therapy. Cox-Martin’s study didn’t use a control group, but participants who completed ACT saw measurable improvements in their fitness levels over the course of ten weeks. Mindfulness may be overrated, but for people who cringe at the thought of a treadmill, it might also make working out a little more tolerable.