Are you one of those people who truly loves exercising? There are some among us who really get off on working out, but let’s face it, most people wouldn’t say they especially like to exercise. If you fall into the later category, there’s a study that might interest you, because it’s possible that you’ve just been psyching yourself out of a leaner, healthier body.
A study, The Invisible Benefits of Exercise, published in Health Psychology, set out to uncover whether — and why — people underestimate how much they enjoy exercise. Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) conducted four separate studies involving a total of 279 adults who were asked to predict how much they thought they would enjoy exercising, and then asked to report their actual feelings after exercising to determine if people systematically underestimate their enjoyment, and if that expected enjoyment can be enhanced.
Good news for those of you out there who think you don’t like working out: The answers are yes and yes!
Let’s walk through each of the four studies to see how they arrived at their conclusions:
Study 1: Do people underestimate how much they enjoy exercising?
For the first study, researchers targeted 40 members of a private gym (average age 23, 78% women) across seven, hour-long group fitness classes (four cardiovascular and three yoga/Pilates). They randomly assigned 21 participants to forecast how much they would enjoy the upcoming workout on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 10 (very much). Immediately following the class, they were asked the same question. The other 19 participants were only asked to rate their level of enjoyment immediately after the class to be pure “experiencers” (that is, researchers wanted to make sure the act of predicting did not color their responses).
It turns out, participants reported greater enjoyment across all exercise classes after completing the workout than they had initially predicted they would, and the pure experiencers also reported more enjoyment than the forecaster’s predictions.
Conclusion: People may systematically underestimate how much they enjoy exercising.
Study 2: Do people underestimate their enjoyment of a self-designed workout?
Because participants in the first study had completed a class led by an instructor, and therefore, were not in control of their workout, the second part of the study was meant to strengthen the previous findings by surveying 32 members of a UBC campus gym (average age 21, 41% women) who completed a one-hour, self-designed, moderate or challenging workout.
Conclusion: Again, researchers found that people underestimated their enjoyment, even if they designed the workout.
OK, so people don’t realize how much they might actually like to work out. Now for the interesting stuff …
Why do we do this, and how can we go about changing our attitudes?
Researchers hypothesized that this phenomenon might be caused by two things:
1. The beginning of a workout is negative.
2. The beginning of the workout drives the forecast.
Further, they stated: “If our hypotheses are correct, then it should follow that affective forecasts can be made more positive by having people move the most enjoyable component of their workout to the very beginning. That is, it should be possible to capitalize on the tendency to focus excessively on the beginning of the event to increase expected enjoyment.”
Which brings us to …
Study 3: Can rearranging your routine make a difference?
Fifty-three UBC gym members (average age 23, 34% women) were stopped at the gym entrance and asked to list all of the exercises they were planning to complete (excluding warm-up and cool-down), and which was their most favorite and least favorite. Those gym-goers were then randomly assigned to consider either beginning with their favorite and ending with their least favorite, or the reverse, and forecasting their expected enjoyment of their routine.
Conclusion: Well the actual content of their workouts did not change, those who planned to start with their favorite exercise and end with their least favorite forecasted greater expected enjoyment. Researchers believed this supported their case that “when making an affective forecast for exercise, the beginning of the experience carries disproportionate weight.”
So learning to love working out is as simple as doing your favorite exercises first, right? Not so fast.
Researchers noted potential drawbacks to this, including that your favorite exercise could be one that uses multiple muscle groups and may interfere with the ability to perform subsequent exercises if it is performed too early in the workout. What’s more, starting a workout involves getting your heart rate and breathing up, and activating your muscles, and this may make the beginning of an exercise routine inherently unpleasant. Which leads us to the final study …
Study 4: Can spreading your attention affect intention?
The goal of this part of the study was to come up with a more practical, theory-based intervention that could increase participants’ expected enjoyment of exercise, and thus, their intention to work out. The thought was that if they asked participants to consider how much they would enjoy each phase of an exercise routine, from beginning to end, their attention would be spread to the more enjoyable phases, leading them to forecast greater overall enjoyment, and this would in turn influence their intention to exercise.
Researchers expanded the study group to include 154 people (average age 24, 44% women) from the UBC campus (not specifically in the gym) and had them read descriptions of a “race day” spin class on a stationary exercise bike, with a warm-up (10 minutes of pedaling at a light resistance, as one would on a flat road), main workout (riding over a series of increasingly steeper hills), and cool-down phase (same as warm-up).
Some participants were asked to forecast their expected enjoyment for the overall routine. Others, in an effort to spread their attention, were asked to reflect on and forecast expected enjoyment for each phase of the workout, and then for the overall routine. Both groups were then questioned about future workout intentions based on this.
Conclusion: “Study 4 provides evidence that for many people, the earlier stages of working out are perceived as less enjoyable than the later stages; notably, this effect emerged even though the warm-up and cool-down phases were identical in content. Furthermore, Study 4 supports the idea that people’s affective forecasts for exercise can be made more positive — and their intentions to engage in exercise can be strengthened — simply by spreading people’s attention away from the relatively aversive beginning of an exercise routine to the experience as a whole.”
Start Loving Your Workout
It has been proven that exercise creates arousal and triggers the release of endorphins, noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine — you’re natural feel-good drugs — but with people so focused on the initial, unpleasant phase of their workout, they may never get around to suiting up and hitting the gym.
So, if you are one of those people who is not particularly keen on working out, you may be able to trick yourself into actually enjoying it by rearranging your routine or spreading your attention to other parts of the workout rather than just focusing on the beginning.
If you can get yourself up and moving, and start allowing those happy hormones to kick in, we think you make just be surprised at how much you actually like working out. And the way you look in your skinny jeans or a bathing suit this summer shouldn’t hurt your mood either.
 Ruby, M.B., Dunn, E.W., Perrino, A., Gillis, R., & Viel, S. (2011). The Invisible Benefits of Exercise. Health Psychology, 30:1, 67–74.