3 Mental Strategies to Help You Build a Regular Exercise Routine

A Duke University study that found over 40 percent of our actions aren’t actually decisions, but habits. Here's how to build good ones. 

Chocolate—the key to working out, says NY Times journalist Charles Duhigg. While I’m apt to reply, yes, chocolate is the key to most everything, Duhigg is specifically addressing a way to “trick your brain” into getting fitter. For those lacking the motivation to hit the trail or get into the gym, chocolate just might be the answer. 


Kale chips, he goes on, are not the way to develop an exercise habit. He says people get it wrong—you shouldn’t punish yourself by following up a workout with something you don’t enjoy but think is good for you. (Let’s pause to remember all kale chips are not created equal. Some are truly terrible, though.) 

You need an intrinsic reward, a treat that is meaningful and pleasurable. As Duhigg states,

Studies say that the best way to start an exercise habit is to give yourself a reward that you genuinely enjoy.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Duhigg writes that habits are a three-step process: a cue, routine, and reward. He cites a 2006 study at Duke University that found over 40 percent of our actions aren’t actually decisions, but habits. We think we’re putting a novel idea into action when really we’re on autopilot. 

Unless you deliberately fight a habit, the habit will automatically unfold. You reach for a cigarette, you pull the phone from your pocket while in line, you don’t go to the gym in the morning. You need to introduce a new cue in order to change the routine. But if the reward isn’t there, or isn’t actually pleasurable, you’ll fall back on old patterns. 

Having worked at Equinox since 2004 (and having been going to gyms since the late eighties, when my father ran his company’s exercise facilities on the side), I’ve heard innumerable excuses about why don’t people work out. 

Not enough time is first uttered. Strangely, though, many of my students are extremely busy at their jobs. It’s not a matter of having time, but of budgeting it properly to ensure they’re functioning optimally in body and brain. Carving that time into your day has beneficial effects on the other parts when you are swamped with duties. 

The second is not enough money to join a gym. While some are not cheap, plenty of gyms run between $10 and $40 a month. But forget the gym for a moment. All you really need is about ten feet of space. Given the number of free workouts on Youtube and Instagram, there is no dearth in available content. 

Time and money aren’t the real problem. Habits are. As Duhigg says, the brain of the uninspired has not developed the proper neurological connections between routine and reward. It could be a missing cue: leaving your sneakers next to your bed so you see them first thing in the morning is well-circulated advice, in the same way that removing the office candy dish from the table curbs compulsive snacking. Cues are necessary catalysts for routines. 

Whatever cues you choose—post-it notes, sneakers at the door, earlier settings on the alarm clock—the following three pieces of advice are the most effective catalysts I’ve witnessed:

Schedule your workouts. Putting your sessions into your calendar makes fitness part of your day. Treating your workout like everything else in life, from your job to taking care of your children, instills a mindset that this is not a hobby. We recognize that we live in a sedentary culture, yet there has never been so many opportunities to explore such a wide range of exercise options. Devoting that hour a day a few days a week will make a big impact in the rest of your hours. Scheduling it in makes it real in your mind. 

Commit to daily exercise. This past weekend two different men stopped me after class to tell me they needed to commit to practicing more yoga. Both get in a class a week. But a little every day is better than one weekly session. Even ten minutes on busy days can be enough. Diversifying your workouts, between cardio, weight and bodyweight training, yoga, and meditation is a solid approach, but to begin, just get moving, daily. That said, don’t overload during your first month. Too many people hit it hard only to get injured and lose focus. This is a long game strategy we’re discussing, not a quick hit of dopamine. 

Find movements you enjoy. One of the biggest reasons people stop working out is because they don’t enjoy it. Such a routine will never stick. Just as the reward needs to provide pleasure, so does the routine. If you’re not deriving pleasure during exercise—if you think it’s because you should be doing it instead of want to be doing it—there’s no chance it will last. Fortunately there are thousands of ways to move your body. Taking a running class when you have weak knees or lifting heavy weights when you have a shoulder injury makes no sense. What about ping-pong? Swimming? Hiking? Most every form movement is beneficial, provided you’re being safe and focusing on form. 

In The Power of Habit, Duhigg writes, 

Only when your brain starts expecting a reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

Hence, chocolate. Yet Duhigg is not repeated that tired trope exercising allows you to be gluttonous. The need for the chocolate wears off in a week and a half (or so) as your brain links the reward to the routine itself. Your brain—you, forgive the metaphysical verbiage—trick yourself into action by giving it a little boost. Then, he says, 

After a week and a half your brain will learn that it enjoys the intrinsic reward of exercise. 

Not to say a little chocolate is a bad thing. Let’s be real. Life without exercise or chocolate is not an optimal life. Fortunately we can have it both ways. 

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Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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