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by Marty Munson

June 13, 2022

Use these science-tested strategies to get to the pool, even when you might not really be feeling it

One of the main myths about motivation is that you get motivated and then you act, that a lightning bolt comes or a muse appears and you spring into action.

Fortunately and unfortunately, that’s not how it goes. As James Clear points out in his book “Atomic Habits,” “Motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it.”

Lots of scientists have looked at what actions are particularly good at helping people stick to their workouts and maintain their motivation, which can help you maintain your motivation to keep swimming.

Here are some of the most surprising, interesting, and useful findings.

1. Exercise at the Same Time All the Time

Aiming to get to the pool “whenever” stands a good chance of ending up with you getting to the pool “never.”

A 2021 review in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews found that people were more likely to follow through on their intentions to exercise if they were consistent about doing their workouts at the same time of day, especially if that time was morning.

The authors say that working out at a consistent time can simplify planning, improve habit formation, and improve self-regulation (self-regulation basically means “control [of oneself], by oneself,” according to a straightforward definition by psychotherapist Andrea Bell).

If you always hit the pool at 6:30 a.m., you know which roads are clearest at that time, what to-go cup your coffee goes in, and which products and clothes you need for afterward—no recalculating or new thinking needed. The paper also points out that habits require fewer deliberate motivation and cognitive resources from you in the moment than not having habits does. In other words, a habit helps you avoid the whole rethinking/overthinking quagmire.

About that morning thing. In general, planning helps workouts happen (“Planning is an effective time management and behavior change strategy that can help individuals to exercise even when faced with time pressures and competing responsibilities,” the study says), and mornings make planning easier because fewer things like last-minute meetings generally get in the way. Also, as the day goes on, you may be less good at self-regulation and other priorities can crop up. That said, if you’re more successful with an evening workout habit, congrats. Keep it.

2. Reward Yourself

It would be great if the rewards of a workout itself would be enough to propel us right back to the pool when our motivation evades us. Despite the great feeling you might get from practice—whether that’s because you really reached for something, because you chilled out, because you saw friends, or because you shared some laughs—sometimes, it just doesn’t get you back in.

In seeking a rigorous way to study behavior change, two researchers initiated a “megastudy” of more than 60,000 members of the 24-Hour Fitness gym chain. Those researchers? Influential change researcher Katy Milkman, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of “How to Change,” along with her Wharton colleague Angela Duckworth, who created a lot of conversation about passion and perseverance with her book “Grit.”

They and 30 scientists from 15 universities looked at the effects of more than 50 motivational programs against what happened when members changed nothing about their lives inside or outside of the gym. The members who got the intervention signed up for a program that offered new ways to motivate themselves to work out, according to a New York Times article on the study. Everyone got advice about planning their workouts at a consistent time of day, got texts to remind them about those plans, and about $0.22 in reward points if worked out. On top of that, everyone got one of 52 different digital motivational programs, ranging from ways to reframe exercise as fun to audiobooks.

What worked the best in getting people back to the gym surprised even the researchers themselves, The Times reported. The program that increased gym visits the most—by about 16%—was giving people the equivalent of $0.09 in rewards if they returned to the gym after a missed workout that they’d planned to do. (Interestingly, giving people the equivalent of $1.75 each time they worked out wasn’t as effective. But it was on its heels.)

Admittedly, it’s a little hard to do this yourself. You can try offering yourself a reward for getting back after a skipped workout, but performance coach Michelle Cleere points out that “the effectiveness of extrinsic rewards like these wears off quickly, and once it’s not there, the behavior generally goes away.” So as Milkman told The Times, an important point is to “try not to miss more than one workout.”

3. Know What You Like About It

Remembering why you like swimming may help you do it more.

A small Norwegian study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports in 2020 looked at what might help new exercisers continue going to a gym a year after they signed up. In general, people with “autonomous” motives—you work out because you value what you get from it or it’s an important part of your identity—tend to be more likely to exercise regularly than people whose motives are “controlled,” meaning they’re initiated due to external pressure (someone else wants you to) or internal pressure (you feel guilty). In this research, people who stuck with exercise were the ones who rated the motives “enjoyment” and “challenge” high.

It can’t hurt to make yourself a list of what you enjoy about swimming, as well as a list of what challenges you’d consider fun in the next week, month, or year.

4. SMARTen up Your Goals

You can’t talk about motivation without talking about goal setting; it’s the stuff of every discussion around adherence to New Year’s resolutions. They help you stay on track and keep doing your workouts. “The problem with goal setting is that most people set themselves up for failure because their goals are too small, too big, or just aren’t specific enough,” Cleere says.

You can’t just say “I want to get stronger.” You need to set SMART goals. And while the actual words behind every letter of that acronym differ a little bit depending on who you’re talking to, the American College of Sports Medicine defines them as: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Trackable (other places use “time-bound”).

Not only do you want a long-term goal, but you’ll want shorter term SMART goals that help you get there, step by step, Cleere says. “Break everything down into very specific things you can work on.” Day by day, you’ll see yourself getting there.

If you’re frustrated that you’re not seeing progress toward that goal, check in with a coach who can help you adjust the goal or to tweak your strategy for getting there.

5. Cool Down and Hang Out

A nice cool-down might not just benefit your body.

In one small but often-quoted study, in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, scientists from Duke University and Iowa State University had people do 15 minutes of exercise that either increased in intensity (to a level they thought of as unpleasant) or decreased in intensity throughout the workout.

Previous research suggested that people tend to rate higher intensity work as less pleasurable, but these researchers were also aware of behavioral economics research that the “slope of change” during an episode—whether it goes from pleasurable to not or vice versa—weights how someone evaluates an experience when it’s over.

After exercise researchers used validated questionnaires to basically ask the following questions: “How do you feel at this moment about the physical activity you have been doing?”; “How did the exercise session in the laboratory make you feel?”; and “If you repeated the exercise session again, how do you think it would make you feel?”

As they suspected, the study reports, “ramping intensity down ... improved postexercise pleasure and enjoyment, remembered pleasure, and forecasted pleasure.” So, if you want to come back tomorrow, and do it the next week, and the week after that, it might be best to do what your coaches have been saying and avoid jumping out after the main set. That cool-down may be doing as much for your next workout as it is for this one. 


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  • Motivation