Nine Tips to Keep Yourself Exercising, from a Former Couch Potato

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine Tips to Keep Yourself Exercising.

One of the most commonly made, and most frequently broken, New Year’s resolutions is the resolution to exercise more.

People who exercise are healthier, more energetic, think more clearly, sleep better, have delayed onset of dementia…the list goes on.

There’s also a lot of research into the connection between exercise and happiness – some studies suggest that it provides a real boost, some studies suggest that while correlated, exercise isn’t a factor in making people happier. I’m interested to see what further studies reveal, but I’ve made up my own mind: in my experience, and the experience of everyone I know who exercises, exercise makes me calmer, more cheerful, and more alert.

But even once you’re convinced of the benefits, if you’re not inclined to exercise, it can be hard to adopt the habit. My favorite activity is reading in bed, and I don’t enjoy games of any sort, but over the years I’ve managed to transform myself into a regular exerciser by deploying these strategies:

1. Always exercise on Monday. This sets the psychological pattern for the week.

2. If at all possible, exercise first thing in the morning. The longer the day goes on, the more likely you are to get derailed.

3. Never skip exercising for three days in a row. You can skip a day, and you can skip two days, but on the third day, you must exercise no matter how inconvenient. (This rule is more effective than it sounds; it kept me exercising regularly during college.)

4. Give yourself credit for the smallest effort. When my father started running, he said that all he had to do was put on his running shoes and close the door behind him. I never push myself hard, because I know that if I did, I might stop exercising altogether. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The fifteen-minute walk you DO take is better than the three-mile run you DON’T take.

5. If you don’t have time both to exercise and take a shower, find an activity that doesn’t require a shower afterward, like yoga or walking. I do an extremely tough weight-training regimen that doesn’t make me sweat (and yes, it is effective, even with no sweat!).

6. Look for affordable ways to make exercising more pleasant or satisfying. Could you upgrade to a nicer gym? Buy yourself a new iPod? Work with a trainer? Get a pedometer? (they’re only $20). A lot of people are feeling a real money crunch right now, but exercise is a high life priority, so if you can afford it, this is a place to spend some money if that helps.

7. Remind yourself of the benefits from exercising. Personally, I’m more motivated by short-term gratifications like “I’ll feel more focused” or “I’ll sleep better” than long-term considerations like “I’ll live longer” or “If I have surgery, I’ll recover quicker.” A trainer told me that, in her experience, men are more motivated by the idea of improving their performance (a better tennis game) or restoring an ability (climbing stairs without getting out of breath); women are more motivated by the promise of improving their appearance.

8. Think about context. If you find it much harder to go running in winter than summer, maybe the real trouble is that you don’t like the cold. Do you hate the loud music in your gym? Is your work-out so exhausting that you can’t face the rest of your day?

9. When choosing an activity, a gym, or an exercise class, make convenience a top priority. You’re much more likely to go to a mediocre gym near your office or home than to a great gym that’s out of your way.

Apart from the happiness gain you’ll get from the exercise, merely the fact that you’ve kept your resolution to yourself will boost your happiness.

* A blog I’ve enjoyed for a long time is Marginal Revolution. It’s about economics — always interesting and often raises issues that touch directly on the subject of happiness.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Cold, Crowded, and Inconvient – But the Inauguration Is Making Me Very Happy

I’m very HAPPY to be in Washington, D.C. for the Inauguration. Thinking it over, I realize that there are several different aspects of the situation that are boosting my happiness.

First, it’s a happy occasion. Because this is a joyful event, everyone is cheerful, enthusiastic, chatty, and helpful. The huge crowds, the freezing weather, and the logistical difficulties just seem to make the occasion a bigger adventure.

Second, I realize that I rarely participate – directly or as an observer – in big national events. I’ve never been to the Superbowl; I don’t even watch the Superbowl on TV. I don’t follow American Idol. We live less than a mile from the parade route for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I’ve never been (I have a friend whose family used to come up from New Orleans each year!). But when I do get into the spirit of these kinds of events, I love it. My daughter and I went to a bookstore at midnight to line up for the last Harry Potter book, and that was tremendously fun. Everyone in the country – and throughout the world – is watching the Inauguration, so it’s great to be here, myself.

Third, and the most significant, is the sense of elevation to everyone’s excitement. It’s not like watching the ball drop in Times Square for New Year’s Eve. Whether Barack Obama supporters or not, people seem to share the conviction that something very important has happened: the United States has taken an enormous step to achieve its promise. And the sense of that here in Washington is very powerful.

I feel very lucky to be here – but zoikes, it is cold.

*Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Today is the Most Depressing Day of the Year — Not.

Apparently, according to a mathematical formula devised by Cliff Arnall, today is the most depressing day of 2009. Arnall’s formula considers factors like people’s failure to keep up their new year’s resolutions, the weather, post-holidays blues (no more fun, lots of bills), and the date falling on a Monday.

Paradoxically, I got a happiness boost from someone’s claim that today is the year’s most depressing day. First of all, I got a kick out of the idea of trying to identify the most depressing day with a formula. Silly, but fun. What factors would you use to identify your own personal “most depressing day” formula? You’d probably come up with a very different day, based on the end of basketball season, the opening of bathing-suit season, etc.

In any event, in the United States, this formula is certainly not accurate this year (Arnall is from the UK). Today is a Monday, but it’s a holiday, and that raises people’s spirits. Also, it’s the day before President-elect Obama’s inauguration. While most Inauguration Days probably don’t do much to lift people’s moods, this one is different.

But second, even aside from considering the accuracy of the claim, just hearing the announcement that today is “the year’s most depressing day” makes the day seem better. Even if I have a bad day today, I’m not likely to think, “Gosh, this is going to turn out to have been the most depressing day of the year.” Things aren’t likely to be that bad.

There’s a psychological term for this: downward comparison. Comparing my January 19th to the most depressing day I can imagine makes today seem bright. Downward comparisons tend to boost happiness, because they remind us to be grateful for what we have. In one study, people’s sense of life satisfaction changed dramatically depending on whether they completed sentences starting “I’m glad I’m not…” (downward comparison) or instead, “I wish I was…” (upward comparison).

So, today, if you’re feeling blue, you’re not alone — and if you’re not feeling blue, you can appreciate that.

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I was thrilled to be included in this list of 5 Web Folk I Admire–Something I Don’t Do Easily on Dan Perlman’s blog, Enquiring Mimes.

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Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Happiness Quotation from Simone Weil.

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
–Simone Weil

*Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Your Happiness Project: Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I was inspired by an observation by Voltaire to make my resolution, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, instead of pushing yourself to an impossible “perfect,” and therefore getting nowhere, accept “good.” Many things worth doing are worth doing badly.

I have a friend who never exercises unless she’s training for a marathon; as a consequence, she almost never exercises. I never push myself when I exercise, and although I suspect she scoffs at my wimpy work-outs, I’ve managed to get myself to exercise several times a week for years. If I’d tried to have a more ambitious work-out, I’m sure I wouldn’t have exercised at all.

Along the same lines, I told a friend that one of my happiness-project resolutions was to “Remember birthdays,” and so I was sending out happy-birthday emails. He said, “Oh, you shouldn’t email! You should call or write a hand-written note, that’s much nicer.” True – but I won’t. And it’s better to get something done imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.

The perfect can also become the enemy of the good in the quest for perfect information. There are two ways to approach decision-making: as a satisficer (yes, that is a word) or as a maximizer.

Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high, but as soon as they find the pasta sauce or the business card that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. Even if they see a bicycle or a backpack that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, to make the best possible choice. Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers; maximizers spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they did, in fact, make the best choice. (For a fascinating discussion, read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice.)

In almost every category, I’m a satisficer, and in fact, I often felt guilty about not doing more research before making decisions. But it’s one of my Secrets of Adulthood: Most decisions don’t require extensive research. In picking a girls’ summer camp, a friend got information from twenty-five camps and visited five in person. We got information from five camps and picked the one that a friend’s daughter loved. I used to think that my lack of diligence was a sign of laziness, and my resolution “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has made me feel a lot better.

In some situations, the happier course is to know when good enough is good enough, and not to worry about perfection or making the perfect choice.

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