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I was at brunch with four of my girlfriends in 2011. We were trading thoughts on the intersection of work, identity, and parenthood. How could we get more meaning out of the work we did? How could we balance the projects we were working on with wanting to having kids, who are a notorious time and energy sink? All this was in service of the simple goal of being happier, but it seemed like the road to happiness was full of complex hurdles.
I left that conversation uneasy. Dejected, even. These women I was talking to are some of the most impressive people you could meet. It seemed wrong to me that the collective IQ, drive, ambition, and diverse set of experiences on that thread couldn’t make more progress on the issue of achieving happiness.
Then I thought that perhaps we were going about it all wrong. That maybe IQ, drive, and ambition weren’t in fact particularly useful for obtaining happiness. And that perhaps if I looked elsewhere for solutions, I would find lower hanging fruit.
Every once in awhile life presents a dead-simple solution to our ails. And I found one when I went looking.
If you want to be happier and feel more badass in life, the zero dollar prescription to your ails is to get physically active.
Yes, that really it.
The body of research supporting exercise’s positive effects on well-being are vast and well-documented.
- Exercise releases endorphins, neurotransmitters associated with feelings of relaxation and happiness
- Consistent exercise is associated with improvements in brain function, including memory. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School share with Harvard Health Publications.
- The effects can be longstanding. A meta study of work done on exercise as a treatment of clinical depression shows that exercise had a material impact on many patients’ mood.
What To Do If You Hate Exercise
You may have just scrolled really quickly through that section. Maybe it’s because you dread exercising. You’d rather work through three more powerpoints and clean the cat’s litter box than go jogging.
I am so with you.
Even though I would get the endorphin high after an exercise session, by the time the next day rolled around I would be back to my usual recalcitrance. The feats I would go to to avoid exercise were comical.
Over the years, I’ve tried many things to make myself hit the gym. I paid for a membership to the most expensive facility I could find: it was $130 a month. I figured the price would trigger the primal money-saving part of me. Surely I wouldn’t want to “waste” that money by not going to the gym. To lower the friction of starting a workout, I selected a gym that was only three blocks from work. I could toss a ball of paper out my window and almost hit that gym. And they gave you workout clothes. Unless you were missing an arm or a leg, there was absolutely no reason not to go.
Membership Duration: 12 Months
Times I Went To That Gym: 23 (24 if you count the one time I went to workout but ended up sitting in their cafe and drinking a smoothie instead)
Reducing friction is an important component of getting yourself to do anything, but the real breakthrough came a few years later. 1) I moved to an apartment that was farther from the subway and 2) I got a dog.
If I wanted to go to work, I had to walk those extra blocks. And my dog needed to go out twice a day whether I was hungry, tired, lazy, or deep in the thrall of Game of Thrones. The trick was to build the infrastructure of my life in such a way that the exercise was not the goal but rather a byproduct of something that was necessary in my life.
Like water flows down the path of least resistance, the behavior of a lazy person like me would also move towards the path of least resistance.
This is actually pretty easy to do when you’re conscious of it. If most of what you need in your life is close to home, you can get rid of your car and walk to all your destinations instead. If things are too far for that solution, you can get a bicycle. And if they’re extra far, you can consider a motorized bicycle. If your work commute cannot be changed, you can certainly still change the infrastructure around all your other errands such as groceries, going to restaurants and entertainment with the family, and everything else.
As a reforming Type-A individual, I find that I will exercise happily if it is a means to an end I desire. For example, if I’m craving a cupcake, I will plan to go to a farther cupcake place (but also more well-reviewed) to ensure I get the amount of steps I’m targeting per day. If I want to meet a friend, I suggest a destination that is closer to them at at least half a mile from my house. You’ll be able to create opportunities for these positive feedback loops if you simply look for them. For example, don’t buy any sweets or snacks on your grocery run. Every time you want one, you have to bike to the store to buy a snack pack.
Once I realized I couldn’t rely on my mood to determine when I should exercise, things have improved. In retirement, I am able to break my tasks up even finer to give myself more opportunities for exercise. I’ll walk half a mile just to get a set of keys copied. The next day I’ll go out just for a $3 loaf of bread.
Financial Benefits of Your New Exercise Habit
When I started exercising regularly, I noticed I got sick less often. That’s less OTC meds, less doctor appointments, and less woe-is-me takeout orders (not on the doctor’s prescription but it really should be).
Additionally, I find when I’m happier I want to buy less stuff. When my mind is clear, the most interesting things to me are a good article or an interesting question. My concentration is better, so I’m more apt to choose free activities that appeal to my intellectual side.
Exercise gives me more energy in the day. When I have more energy, I’m much more willing to deal with the longer train ride or walk over a cab to save a few bucks. I’m much more willing to lug 30 pounds of groceries up the stairs of my fifth floor walk-up. I save money by taking the cheaper options. And I get more done that earns me money. I’m willing to call Time Warner and get them to lower the price on cable (they do this by giving you a year of your higher package service for the price of the cheaper one you want to switch to, hoping you’ll forget by the time it expires).
My mind is also more open to money-earning ideas when I’m active. I do some of my best thinking when I’m walking. Just recently I built part of my home-buying thesis on walks with the dog.
The Cheat Sheet for Everything About Exercise
In my research on exercise, I came across this awesome summary of research and recommendations on exercise from Happify.
Sometimes the best things in life really are free.
Do you get physical activity regularly? Has it always come easily to you or what tactics do you use to get and stay motivated?