Unless you’re one of a very fortunate few, you might not exactly love exercising. For many of us, it’s hard to figure out how to really enjoy exercise.
But it’s hard to read a single wellness article these days without seeing some statistic about how helpful exercise is. So you’re likely very aware of the fact that you should be exercising, but you’d simply rather fill your time doing something else instead.
The good news is, this doesn’t mean you’re being lazy!
If you consider what would be good for us throughout our evolutionary history, it makes sense that until very recently, we didn’t have enough calories to spare on any exercise beyond the physical energy we needed to exert in order to survive.
The Secret for How to Enjoy Exercise: Temptation Bundling
There’s selection pressure against what our brains deem to be unnecessary exercise. When calories are scarce (like they were for the majority of our evolutionary history), anyone burning additional body mass was at a disadvantage.
Cave-age folks who loved running for fun would spend unnecessary calories, making them less likely to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation.
Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist from Harvard, notes that some hunter-gatherers had diets of only 2,200 calories per day. “When your energy intake is that low, you can’t afford to go for a jog just for fun,” he told Slate.
The upshot is that it’s perfectly normal to hate running!
Even though running is good for us, even though we know exercise makes us healthier, our brains have a hard time fully buying into that.
But there is a way to “hack” your brain to learn how to enjoy exercise – to subvert the temptations and use them to reinforce the healthy habits you want to take on.
The strategy is called “temptation bundling,” as coined by University of Pennsylvania researcher Katherine Milkman in a 2014 study.
The idea is simple. You pick a “want” behavior (something with instant gratification) and pair it with a “should” behavior (an unattractive activity with long-term benefits) and habitually reinforce a relationship whereby you can only do the first when you do the second.
By rewarding a delayed gratification activity such as going to the gym, healthy eating, or even doing taxes, with an immediate gratification “guilty pleasure,” which can be binge-watching a Netflix show or a funny podcast, our brains learn to associate the immediate pleasure with the behavior we should be doing.
Here’s How You Can Take Advantage of Temptation Bundling to Learn How to Enjoy Exercise in 4 Easy Steps:
1. Pick Your Goals
The first thing you should do is pick your goals and set up specific metrics to make sure that as you go, the strategy is actually working for you.
You can pick any delayed gratification habit, but many of my clients focus on exercise as it has such tremendous and fast-acting health benefits.
First, pick your exercise and come up with a goal. For example, cross training three times per week for five weeks. This will help you determine if this method actually works for you later on. I chose to aim to go for a 20-minute jog, four times per week for a month.
2. Pick Your Temptation
Next, pick your temptation. The only rules for this are that it needs to provide instant gratification, and it needs to be something that you can reasonably restrict access to otherwise.
If I paired my workout with scrolling through Instagram, for example, but never limited my Instagram use otherwise, the pairing wouldn’t work.
In my experience, the most successful pairings are with some kind of episodic media consumption, like a podcast or TV show. It’s much easier to create a ritual you look forward to, and it’s easier to have a discrete limit on when you consume it – you can easily stick to three episodes a week of New Girl, for example.
3. Run a Trial
Third, do your trial period. The most important thing in this step is to consider it an active investigation, a work in progress.
Don’t be angry or despair if you fail, because this isn’t a success/failure thing. You’re just testing out a strategy to see if it works for you, judgement free.
If it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean you messed up – it just means the strategy needs a bit more tweaking to work for your personal lifestyle and motivations.
Finally, evaluate your results. If it works, great! Enjoy your love of exercise and all the benefits that come with it.
You can expand this to any aspect of your life. For example, you can learn to love filing taxes, but only when drinking a fancy beverage. Or maybe you can introduce a bathroom cleaning regimen while you watch your favorite YouTuber who only posts on Sundays.
If it doesn’t quite work out, the critical thing is to not give up. Maybe find a more tempting temptation or get stricter about where you actually indulge in your temptation.
Try less time, or fewer reps per week. There are plenty of options to customize temptation bundling into a strategy that works for you – you just have to find the right combination.
How Does Temptation Bundling Actually Work to Help You Learn How to Enjoy Exercise?
Katherine Milkman’s initial 2014 study found that just by asking people to only listen to a gripping audiobook while they were at the gym, folks were more inclined to actually go to the gym.
Her follow-up study in 2020 discovered that even just by offering a free audiobook – not forcing people, not instructing them in how to structure their bundles – that simple motivation was enough to encourage people to go to the gym more.
If it’s so effective without explicit instruction, what that means is that temptation bundling has very real, very fast-acting effects for people who choose to use this strategy with intent.
In her words, her studies “support the value of temptation bundling as a behavior change technique, and offer suggestive evidence of its use as a potentially scalable, low-cost intervention to promote behavior change for good.”
Use Temptation Bundling to Learn How to Enjoy Exercise Once and for All!
This strategy is cheap, it’s easy, and it’s effective in getting people to acquire better habits.
Ultimately, temptation bundling immediately rewards our brain for doing activities we normally don’t enjoy doing, but that give us long-term benefits. All we ever needed was a push in the right direction!