How I fixed exercise
Hi, I’m Gabriel. I recognize that people don’t usually introduce themselves in posts on here, but this is my first one, and it’s gonna be a pretty personal one, so I might as well be a bit personable.
You might have seen me on the University of Bayes discord or the unofficial LessWrong telegram channels. On the latter a discussion around exercise appeared, and some people wanted to hear how I “fixed” exercise for myself. I was recommended to post this on here, so this post is an adapted version of what I said then.
I didn’t exercise much growing up, and this resulted in an unhealthy relationship to exercise as an adult. I was starting this journey with a lot of shame and frustration around trying over and over to start something stable, and always failing once passion stopped. I had a huge huge Ugh Field around exercise, which made everything harder. So a lot of the journey was incrementally going from “I try to exercise, but I keep failing” to “Exercise generally works for me. Sometimes I stop, due to being sick, stressed or forgetful, but it’s no big deal, and it’s easy to resume it”. I now have the identity of “someone who exercises”, regardless if I do at that moment. This is the superpower, because this means the Ugh Fields are dissolved and there’s no shame or frustration in the way. Without psychological barriers, deciding to exercise and actually exercising follow each other tightly.
This took me one a and half years of having exercise as a primary focus in my life. I had been trying to create an exercise habit before that, but that was mostly doing the same thing over and over, so I’m discounting that. One and a half years might be the time it takes, or it may be possible to do in less time.
So here’s a bullet point list of the things that would have shortened my journey to exercise. All advice is bad, all journeys are different, but parts of your journey may be similar to mine, and may be made easier from hearing about mine.
If nothing works in your life, as it did for me, find one thing and make it work. Accept that everything else falls to pieces. For me, I had huge piles of dishes, hadn’t folded laundry in months (picked it out of the dryer when I needed a shirt), my sleep was fucked, I ate crap things at weird times, I didn’t clean the floors ever, everything was cluttered with stuff. Giving up on the other things doesn’t change the state on the world, at least not much. My house looked roughly the same before and after giving up on the other things, but I wasted way less willpower here and there and could use the consolidated pile of willpower on one thing, exercise. So exercise had a chance to work. (In practice, I also made sure to prioritize the health of my cats and working my job, but everything optional I disregarded)
Find a way to prove to yourself that you can do the exercise thing. For me, I managed to exercise about 6 days each week for about three months. At that point, I felt that it wasn’t hard anymore, and freely chose to let exercise fall to the background to focus on sleep instead, as per the previous bullet point. This was basically when my brain shifted, and when I “won exercise”. Getting there is the hard part.
Find a form of exercise that works for you. Aim for something low friction (as in having as short of a startup time as possible. You want something that has few steps between deciding to do it and starting). Running is good, so’s cycling. Walking is excellent. Team sports have other benefits, like the social pressures that don’t work for me, but non-team things that require going to an arena/facility is an extra step which gets expensive (in willpower) in the long run. Body weight training on the floor of my apartment (with an exercise app with sub-ten minute sessions of high-intensity exercise) was a staple for my three months, and I used that same app for tracking which days I exercised on. Some days spending a short period of high intensity exercise felt easier. Some days a low-intensity walk felt easier. Usually one of them worked even for the bad days.
Focus on the short-term benefits. Don’t think of the ripped abs in 6 months, nor how quick you’ll be able to run then. Think of the mood boost during the second half of the walk, as well as after the walk. Or even better, the first few breaths of fresh air when you start your walk, or the feeling of stretching your legs properly. Find a way to do the thing because you like doing the thing, not because of some (to your emotional brain) imaginary benefit in the future.
Keep it low stakes/be kind to yourself/reframe what failure is. You’ll have bad days. Maybe more than I had if you’re depressed. Hopefully less seeing as I was in a post-breakup hole. But you’ll have bad days. If you focus on getting a good minute/km average everyday and say you succeeded today if today’s number is low or lower than yesterday, then you’ll fail very many times just due to having good or bad days. Instead: A good day is when you exercised. Full stop. Slow walk around the house counts. You got out of the house with the intention to exercise, it counts. You sat through the 7 minutes the app gives you with exercise clothes on, doing a half push-up (the going down part), holding the plank for approx 4 seconds. It counts. There are no grayscales in this boolean. You’ll get fit over time if you establish the habit, and doing something every day helps establish the habit, regardless of if you doubled your minutes/km today. And if you just keep going outside yet another day, you’ll naturally want to cycle farther or run longer when the current round starts getting easy.
Reframe being sore in your body as a sign of you having been good previous days. It wouldn’t be if hadn’t done the thing yesterday. Though remember pain from exercising that gets worse over time is a warning sign, and if your problem is not motivation, but that your body is not strong enough to handle your exercise form, then you should either find a gateway exercise form that’s kinder to the body or, you know, ask a professional what’s up with your body. I know very little about what kinds of exercises are good for what kinds of problems. I had trouble with my knees, but I don’t think that part of my journey generalizes.
Find ways to motivate yourself to do the thing in the moment. I like the words “the only moment you can act in is now” (as in putting things off to tomorrow can become a trend. If it does, then your choice becomes do it now or never), and similarly “there are no large choices” (as in large turns in your life is the aggregate of small choices, so every time you choose to do something this time, you’re actually kinda choosing the shape of the entire trend, as you’re likely to do the same thing next time, so you should really choose the right thing this time as well).
I don’t particularly believe that good gear is necessary to do well, but there’s motivational value to be found in having a shirt you like putting on and shoes you like running in. It’s another additive factor in the list to make it easier to get outside today as well.
Change is a process if you think of it as a point in time, and change is a point in time if you think of it as a process. What I mean with this is that if you say “this is the day I became an Exerciser™️. From this day on, every day will be exercised upon!” then the first day you skip, your fault or no, becomes a failure, and then you’ll likely fail with abandon, because why start building a new streak if your last one was 9 days? It’s would take so long to beat it again. Might as well give up and go back to the sofa.
But if you think of change as a process, it becomes a point. If you accept that your Don’t Break the Chain calendar is not about a chain that can’t be broken, but rather a tapestry that will have an ever-increasing average of X:es over time, then one failed day is a reason to make sure the next day doesn’t slip. We’re reframing failure again, and this time we go from boolean to floats, for no reason other than it strengthens the incentives to continue.
I aimed for exercising 7⁄7 days each week (with 3-4 high intensity days per week, and walks for the others. Your body needs rest too, but there are other posts for the physiological details). I saw 6⁄7 as perfect and 4⁄7 as a passing grade in bad periods. I landed on an average of like 5.5/7 over the three months. That to me at that point was excellent, and a resounding success. If I had kept to the idea of Don’t Break the Chain, I’d be devastated.
When you’ve proved to yourself that you can keep exercising 5.5/7 days per week if you decide to, then deciding to not exercise as often to focus on something else doesn’t feel like rationalizing giving up, it just feels like a choice. When I arrived at that point, I could stop trying, and from momentum, I kept doing 3⁄7 or so days a week, in an irregular pattern. I’d learned to like it, so it sort of recurred on its own, and it still does. Sometimes I don’t exercise for a couple of weeks, and that feels fine. Then one day I look out the window and see a bright sun and say to myself “I feel like taking a run”. And then I do! My Ugh Field is gone, and it’s not hard anymore. I don’t exercise every day, nor every week. And that feels genuinely okay. But the lack of tension around it makes me keep coming back to it, which results in way more exercise than before. Which brings me to a last point.
Find triggers to pick up the habit again, no matter where in the process you are. It will take time to change yourself. During that process, you’ll likely forget the your process, have an Ugh Field-induced amnesia of the existence of anything called exercise and then realize a month later you’ve (even after reframing failure) failed. So we need a way to start again. And when you’ve gotten past that point I described, where missing weeks no longer feels like a failure (which is the goal, right?) you still want to end up exercising, so you still want triggers to start new periods of more activity.
1. Good weather (Oh I want to feel the sunshine on my face, I’m going for a bike ride)
2. Bad mood (because halfway it will feel better)
3. Extra energy (if I’m bouncing around the house because I’m having a good day, I may as well bounce across the asphalt in my running shoes.)
4. exercise soreness (makes me want to do more exercise because associations) and
5. computer-sitting-induced stiffness (because it’ll get fixed if I move my body).
Together these triggers create a pretty stable road back to the habit.
That’s the core. I probably forgot some things. I also probably wrote way too much, but this was fun. Besides, I was asked for the long version, and that’s what you got. Questions are welcome, but I’ll answer later, because all this typing made me feel like moving my body.
So I’m gonna go for a run.