It sounds too good to be true that you can follow a mechanical process and end up motivated to exercise through pleasure. But why so? It makes total sense biologically and psychologically. But the toughest thing of all is to make yourself really feel it rather than just believe it. It’s not the exercise per se – it’s convincing the slug, otherwise known as the id, that lives inside us all that exercise will make you feel better.
I know from experience that there are days when I absolutely cannot make myself believe that a workout will make me feel better. But I also know from experience that it’s true, no matter whether I believe it or not. So I take it on faith and my faith is always fulfilled.
In the beginning I took it on faith that if I went through the motions by at least starting a workout everyday that eventually I would establish a habit and after that gradually increase the amount of actual exercise. And that’s the only way I could actually make myself start a workout every day – and even then I had trouble – only by reminding myself that I didn’t have to do any actual exercise, and that I would never establish a habit if I skipped days, was I able to get over that usually insurmountable mental barrier to starting a workout.
Here’s the surprising part. There were almost no days when I didn’t get a decent ride in. When you can quit anytime you want, it’s easy to hang in a little longer than you thought you would when you started. And then a little longer after that.
And that’s what I meant by not being able to believe that exercise will make you feel better when your whole body chemistry is telling you to go lay down, or just collapse somewhere. All the poisons of a sedentary work day are dragging you down. Your metabolism is not equipped to deal with work that doesn’t involve physical effort enough to oxygenate the blood.
You have to start that oxygenation process to feel any improvement. But it takes so little to do exactly that. When you’re feeling really burnt-out from a day at work, if you get on an exercise bike and start turning the pedals with any resistance at all you’ll start to feel better almost right away. But if you go into it with the idea that you have to ride for twenty or thirty minutes … well, if you’re like me it will be super hard to start and all and impossible on any kind of consistent basis. And when you do start, the dread of all that time in front of you masks any improvement in how you feel for several minutes.
But you can’t rely on getting yourself started every day just by knowing that. Tired blood will deceive you every time. Until you reach the point where your expectation of how you will feel after a workout just obliterates any reluctance to work out, you have to honor that commitment to go through the motions day after day.
It’s like the things we do in the context of id, ego, and superego. Our id wants us to do whatever we want whenever we want without taking any account of the consequences. The ego knows that to live in the real world there are things we have to do and refrain from doing. The superego makes us do the things we “should” do.
Now even if you make the commitment to start a workout everyday and nothing more you’ll probably find it difficult to avoid the temptation to skip a day. That’s the id trying to drag you down.
But you don’t have to listen to the id. We all have to overcome the id, probably hundreds of times everyday. We don’t even notice a lot of the time because our ego has dealt with the same temptations thousands of times before. Other times we have to mentally steel ourselves to deal with situations and responsibilities that want to make us run screaming from the room.
So if you give in to your id, you’ll probably start skipping days within a week or so, and once you start skipping days arbitrarily that’s pretty much it. You’re back to wherever you started in terms of exercise and self-discipline.
But, if you listen to your ego when it tries to persuade you that feeling better is a good thing and worth a small trade-off in personal comfort up front in order to achieve it, then it’s pretty trivial to just start a workout and then see what happens.
Feeling good is really kind of an id thing. But just knowing that accomplishes nothing. You can’t reason with your id. But by ignoring it for awhile and keeping up with your workout schedule you accomplish two things:
- After a few weeks you start to internalize the sensation of how much better you feel after a workout. As a result, it becomes easier to start. That dread and angst you normally associate with trying to workout at the end of the day fade away because you become eager to burn of the accumulated dread and angst from the workday – the very result of toxins built up in your blood stream.
- Eventually you realize that you can feel better on demand, so rather than whining to collapse somewhere, your id will be whining for you to workout so you’ll feel better.
Now, in my opinion, the usual reasons for workout are centered in the superego. We “should” try to be more fit. We “should” exercise to control our weight. We “should” exercise to prolong the pleasure of living as far as possible into old age.
All true, but all too abstract. But if you start with the expectation of pleasure, and day after day fulfill a small commitment in pursuit of pleasure, and day after day increasingly experience pleasure as a result, eventually your resistance fades because you want … pleasure.
Basically you create a hunger that wasn’t there before. Before, when you were burnt out, you just had to endure it because you weren’t psychologically prepared to deal with it by working out. The toxins in your de-oxygenated blood overwhelmed any good intentions.
But by setting a bar so low that you can get over it day after day you allow yourself to start building an appetite for the results … in pleasure. No persuading yourself of what you “should” be doing – when you feel like crap, you’re hungry to feel good.
To continue that analogy, when I put this principle into practice almost exactly 30 years ago, I rode an exercise bike day in and day out. It was convenient, I could listen to music, the repetitive nature of doing the same thing every day allowed me to zone out, I solved many programming problems by floating them around in my head, and I always won the imaginary exercise bike competitions. But most importantly, I always felt amazingly better after riding than I did before. It never gets old.
So the exercise bike satisfied my hunger, but it was a pretty tasteless meal. There were very few times, if any, when I looked forward to riding the bike. But after the first few weeks, or maybe months, there was never any question of not riding. At the end of the workday I was anxious to get on the bike … for the pleasure I would feel after riding.
Then I discovered Jump Rock and went from steak-umms to steak.