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Motivation to exercise: Where to find it?

Published March 06. 2010 09:00AM

Before you read on, take a moment or two and answer the following question: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

That question is the fifth of 19 that constitute what's know as Proust's Questionnaire, a feature found in each issue of Vanity Fair for more than 15 years. It's named after French novelist Marcel Proust for he felt that answering the questions ones that originally started as a parlor game in France revealed your true nature.

Maria Rodale, chief executive officer of Rodale, was asked to answer all the questions in the January 15 issue of The Morning Call because her company recently published a book of the responses from 101 people writer Kathy Lauer-Williams called "cultural figures," a rather diverse group of personalities including Hugh Hefner, Jane Goodall, Deepak Chopra, Johnny Cash, and Conan O'Brien.

While many of Rodale's replies are provoking, the fifth should be of particular interest to readers of this column. That's because Rodale would like to become "motivated to exercise more often and more strenuously."

Since it stands to reason that more than a few readers feel the same, this column will attempt to answer a tough question: Where do you find the motivation to do what Maria Rodale wishes she could do: exercise more often and more strenuously?

Motivation's a bit like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Go to any health club and it becomes evident.

Most members are just going through the motions, but a few are fully immersed in the movement, fully focused on the effort. How do they develop that mindset?

It's simple. They believe. They believe in whatever regiment or plan they're following.

They believe they are getting better.

Their mental attitude might be summed up by something American physician, author, and artist Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "The greatest thing is not so much where we are, but the direction in which we are moving."

Motivated exercisers are excited by that sense and want to exercise more often or a bit more intensely to continue it.

But that sense is an end result not directions on how to get there.

Unfortunately, that's a path you must chart on your own. What I know from personal experience, however, is that the motivation to exercise wanes if reaching goals, especially reaching specific numbers, becomes more important than experiencing the wonder that the exercise provides.

By age 26, I was advised by doctors not to continue running the 50 miles or more a week that I had been logging for about five years. Two operations on each knee because of a genetic quirk had led to significant degeneration of the kneecaps.

One doctor predicted if I'd keep running I'd have severe arthritis by 35. That scared me enough to stop running.

In hindsight, it was a blessing. Somewhere along the way running had lost its sense of wonder.

I had started running seriously in college as a way to handle the frustration of not playing much on the basketball team. More than once after a midnight return from an away game where I got in only at garbage time, I would change into running gear and go out for six or eight or 10 miles alone in the cold and darkness.

It felt quite liberating. I loved the sense of control, how my body responded when I decided to go all-out up a hill, how peacefully tired I felt at the end.

I got good, got on the college team, and got messed up a couple years after that. My goal all off the sudden was simply to run a certain time sub 2:40 in marathon.

Twice, I got hurt trying; once, I just missed. By the end, it got to the point where I didn't really believe I could reach the goal I was "too heavy" at 160 pounds yet I couldn't abandon it either.

In training, I still thought I was going hard, but I was really just going through the motions.

Now if the above babble is just a bit too abstract for you, take heart. There is something concrete you can do to become more motivated: find an ambitious workout partner or a wise mentor.

In the same way that keeping a positive attitude toward life is easier if you're surrounded by positive people, it's easier to get and remain motivated if you're surrounded by motivated people. In fact, recent studies done by University of Georgia and University of Duke researchers found that one of the key elements to remaining motivated, self-control, is, to some degree, contagious.

Medical News Today explained the most important finding this way: "that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely to exert self-control." The opposite, unfortunately, is also true.

In fact, this effect is so strong "that seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behavior of volunteers."

So if you're just going through the motions at the health club, consider approaching that guy or girl who always seems to be going hard and in the right direction. Pick that person's brain.

Let the enthusiasm generated from that conversation wash over you and create motivation.

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