How I changed my exercise habits

post by Normal_Anomaly · 2015-04-13T22:19:50.506Z · score: 16 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 26 comments

In June 2013, I didn’t do any exercise beyond biking the 15 minutes to work and back. Now, I have a robust habit of hitting the gym every day, doing cardio and strength training. Here are the techniques I used to do get from not having the habit to having it, some of them common wisdom and some of them my own ideas. Consider this post a case study/anecdata in what worked for me. Note: I wrote these ideas down around August 2013 but didn’t post them, so my memory was fresh at the time of writing.


1. Have a specific goal. Ideally this goal should be reasonably achievable and something you can see progress toward over medium timescales. I initially started exercising because I wanted more upper body strength to be better at climbing. My goal is “become able to do at least one pull up, or more if possible”.

Why it works: if you have a specific goal instead of a vague feeling that you ought to do something or that it’s what a virtuous person would do, it’s harder to make excuses. Skipping work with an excuse will let you continue to think of yourself as virtuous, but it won’t help with your goal. For this to work, your goal needs to be something you actually want, rather than a stand-in for “I want to be virtuous.” If you can’t think of a consequence of your intended habit that you actually want, the habit may not be worth your time.

2. Have a no-excuses minimum. This is probably the best technique I’ve discovered. Every day, with no excuses, I went to the gym and did fifty pull-downs on one of the machines. After that’s done, I can do as much or as little else as I want. Some days I would do equivalent amounts of three other exercises, some days I would do an extra five reps and that’s it.

Why it works: this one has a host of benefits.

* It provides a sense of freedom: once I’m done with my minimum, I have a lot of choice about what and how much to do. That way it feels less like something I’m being forced into.

* If I’m feeling especially tired or feel like I deserve a day off, instead of skipping a day and breaking the habit I tell myself I’ll just do the minimum instead. Often once I get there I end up doing more than the minimum anyway, because the real thing I wanted to skip was the inconvenience of biking to the gym.

3. If you raise the minimum, do it slowly. I have sometimes raised the bar on what’s the minimum amount of exercise I have to do, but never to as much or more than I was already doing routinely. If you start suddenly forcing yourself to do more than you were already doing, the change will be much harder and less likely to stick than gradually ratcheting up your commitment.

3. Don’t fall into a guilt trap. Avoid associating guilt with doing the minimum, or even with missing a day.

Why it works: feeling guilty will make thinking of the habit unpleasant, and you’ll downplay how much you care about it to avoid the cognitive dissonance. Especially, if you only do the minimum, tell yourself “I did everything I committed to do.” Then when you do more than the minimum, feel good about it! You went above and beyond. This way, doing what you committed to will sometimes include positive reinforcement, but never negative reinforcement.

4. Use Timeless Decision Theory and consistency pressure. Credit for this one goes to this post by user zvi. When I contemplate skipping a day at the gym, I remember that I’ll be facing the same choice under nearly the same conditions many times in the future. If I skip my workout today, what reason do I have to believe that I won’t skip it tomorrow?

Why it works: Even when the benefits of one day’s worth of exercise don’t seem like enough motivation, I know my entire habit that I’ve worked to cultivate is at stake. I know that the more days I go to the gym the more I will see myself as a person who goes to the gym, and the more it will become my default action.

5. Evaluate your excuses. If I have what I think is a reasonable excuse, I consider how often I’ll skip the gym if I let myself skip it whenever I have that good of an excuse. If letting the excuse hold would make me use it often, I ignore it.

Why it works: I based this technique on this LW post

6. Tell people about it. The first thing I did when I made my resolution to start hitting the gym was telling a friend whose opinion I cared about. I also made a comment on LW saying I would make a post about my attempt at forming a habit, whether it succeeded or failed. (I wrote the post and forgot to post it for over a year, but so it goes.)

Why it works: Telling people about your commitment invests your reputation in it. If you risk being embarrassed if you fail, you have an extra motivation to succeed.


I expect these techniques can be generalized to work for many desirable habits: eating healthy, spending time on social interaction; writing, coding, or working on a long-term project; being outside getting fresh air, etc.

26 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T07:32:57.343Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It would not work for me. The whole idea of going to some gym alone and doing training that develops skills such as strength I do not actually need to use feels very demotivating. It feels useless and sterile.

My method: I wrote about it elsewhere, but in nutshell, I needed a real sport, such as martial arts. Without a sport goal, simply being healthier and sexier is not motivating enough, and it feels silly to get stronger or more flexible without ever having anything to actually use that for. It feels silly to get strong and then go back to the computer and not use it. I also needed the motivation a martial arts trainer yelling commands is giving. On my own I would get bored after maybe 10 mins of cardio, while with a trainer I can do an 1.5 hours long martial arts training without even getting tired, and it offers me a whole package of strength, technique, flexibility, speed, courage, all kinds of trainings, while the whole session doubles as a cardio with actual bouts of HIIT (such as heavy sandbag stuff). So I get a nice overall package there (boxing, but now more drifting towards the kick-boxing class as the trainer is simply better, generally it is better to choose the best trainer you can find, not the "best" martial art).

The only issue is that it is suboptimal on the strength training, 4 x 20 push-ups during a training won't make anyone buff, but once I signed up to an actual sport, such as trying to get a yellow kick-box belt, I feel way more motivated to also do bodyweight progressions at home. This is where being kinda fat is actually helpful. I intend to impress the guys at the martial arts training by doing one-handed push-ups (Pavel Tstatsouline: Naked Warrior book) and given that I am like 106kg (233 lbs, not as horrible as it sounds as I am fairly tall, 189cm) I will probably have scary big arms by the time I get there. Well, either that, or seriously damaged wrists. I think I need to tread careful there...

In short, my view is that I need a real sport, a structured sport training with a trainer, a real goal to use strength or other skills for, which also gives an extra motivation to do exercises outside the training times as well. It is hard for people to motivate themselves to acquire skills they don't need to.

I am not saying I need to have competition as a goal. For example, people can choose to be hobby rock climbers, it gives them a motivation to be strong, yet light, not fat and so on as they can now actually use it.

I chose martial arts not because I am interested in them. I am not actually interested in any sports. But I simply figured fighting is a very basic part of animal life, like feeding or fu... making love, it is simply a very very basic biological experience that must be on your "bucket list", because it is a huge part of life as an animal in general. So I figured if you have no special attraction to any sport, then just fighting makes a good general jolly joker.

My issue with your method, I mean, why I don't think it is generalizable enough is that for example in the modern world you don't need the ability to do a pull-up. You won't use it for work. It just makes you sexier and healthier and this may not be a strong enough motivator, and it is also a mismatch (muscle mass may correlate to sexiness and health but the ability to do a pull-up doesn't, as much of it is in the nerves, not muscle size). So IMHO what is needed is find a sport goal that makes it worthwhile to have the ability to do that pull-up, such as rock climbing or parkour. So you have a real reason for wanting that ability. This would be contribution to your method. (Even better: if there is such a thing as "belts", some form of a certification of rock climbers or parkour traceours, so that you have a really clear goal to work towards, a pride based goal.)

EDIT: I missed the sentence " I initially started exercising because I wanted more upper body strength to be better at climbing". That is exactly my point, my only issue now is the relative importance of it. If I was you, I would have written this article as "Step 1: I decided to find an activity, sport, hobby where fitness can actually be used. In my case climbing." IMHO this decision was the single most important in your chain of decisions and I think you are not emphasizing it enough. If you would not have a goal like climbing, but only the usual be sexier / be healthier goals, the whole thing would work differently. This is why I think a huge amount of emphasis must be put on this, recommending people to first find a hobby, a sport, where fitness can actually be used.

comment by philh · 2015-04-14T08:44:25.256Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

find a sport goal that makes it worthwhile to have the ability to do that pull-up, such as rock climbing or parkour

It sounds like she had this:

I initially started exercising because I wanted more upper body strength to be better at climbing.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T08:50:43.887Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, missed that, I will edit my comment.

comment by Dutchmo · 2015-04-14T20:52:00.687Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

in the modern world you don't need the ability to do a pull-up. You won't use it for work..

I would argue that you would use it for work, in that some of the same fitness indicators are used to evaluate people in the workplace as in the sexual marketplace. Things like posture, BMI, self-confidence, and even the number of sick days you take factor in. Even height is a fitness indicator. It has nothing to do with actual job performance, but statistically is an advantage. It is pretty much undisputed that fitness is related to health.

However, your point is valid and something I have noticed before. People get their motivations for fitness in different ways. I suspect it may have to do with extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivators?

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2015-04-14T12:24:52.948Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Step 1: I decided to find an activity, sport, hobby where fitness can actually be used. In my case climbing."

My intention was to give strategies that can be used to build any good habit, not necessarily physical fitness. But within the realm of fitness, you make a good point that a sport where you can see the gains provides additional motivation on top of the desire to be healthier.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T12:46:21.159Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is about other good habits as well. I am not sure yet if I won the battle against alcohol, but if yes, it reducing my sports performance will have been a huge part of it. Simply not dying at 50 and things like that were not strong enough motivators, I needed something more immediate, and for that I needed a goal daily drinking directly interferes with.

The problem is most goods habits is just that we follow them out of a certain sense of guilt, because otherwise people will judge us, or because not doing so may kill us decades later and there is a social expectation to pretend to care about that (somehow it is not understood, that if there are people who are so depressed that they want to die right now, there must be far many more people being half-depressed who are okay with the idea of dying in a few decades, and this tends to be primary reason behind unhealthy habits, drugs, booze, cigs, overeating, but there is a strong social expectation to not be so). In this sense healthy habits are very similar today as religious piety was in the past, of course it has better reasons, but those are usually not the real reasons. Any my point is simply that for every virtuous habit, it is very important to find a short-term goal that the habit improves on, so there is some motivation beyond social expectation or a vague fear of death decades later.

Or for example high school and college. I tried not to get fail grades largely because my parents expected me to live a respectable middle-class existence and I needed a marketable degree for that. If I was completely free from such social obligations, I have no idea if I had studied or just chosen the easier, shorter life of some drug-addict homeless hobo or something like that, a no-effort and not uncomfortably long life. So it was the web of obligations and mandatory gratitude pressing me, but that vague sense of duty to my parents did not give a strong enough motivation to get better than pass grades. My point is if I had found a way to make grades more useful, in the short term, if I managed to find a personal goal good grades are useful to, I would have studied better.

So my point is largely about trying to find personal, and short-term goals that require precisely the same kind of good habits that we are socially expected to get anyway. This is sometimes very difficult (the only thing good grades would have bought me back then is a bit more scholarship money, it was not worth it, and nobody looked at my grades after graduation, nor at most of the actual knowledge) but for fitness related ones it is easier.

So that would be my general point. If people guilt-trip you due to obesity, try finding a personal goal a lighter weight is useful for, such as climbing. If people people guilt-trip you about usually not having a job and being a bit of a penniless bum, try figuring out maybe there is something you would actually want to buy, and thus worth investing time into working a regular job to earning a money for. Feel guilty about drugs or boozing, try doing things that you cannot do when high, like have a new hobby that requires driving there because the subway doesn't go there. And so on, it would be a general method.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T04:35:18.743Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Every day, with no excuses, I went to the gym and did fifty pull-downs on one of the machines."

This is not the most efficient means to get towards doing a pull-up. High reps with low weights activates different muscle fibers than low reps with high weight. I would recommend increasing the amount of weight and reducing the number of reps on your lat pulldown. You should also skip a day in between doing this exercise each time. You could do 50% of your body weight as a warm-up, then try 75% of your body weight and see how many reps you can do. If you manage more than 5, you don't have enough weight on there. Incorporate this into a circuit routine to minimize down time. A warm-up set followed by 3 sets of 3 reps is one way of doing this. By 3 reps, I mean your goal is to reach complete fatigue after only 3 reps. You should still try to complete as many reps as you can. Your circuit would include at least 3 other exercises in between that don't target your back so you have time to rest. On your skip day, just do cardio. Another thing to try is to use different variations of the lat pulldown, so you target as wide a variety of muscles as possible. Be careful about your form.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T07:47:07.934Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Skipping a day is useful for hypertrophy. Not so sure how useful it is for strength. Pavel Tstatsouline wrote in The Naked Warrior how he makes his clients do pull-ups every time they exit the kitchen or go down the basement, every day, like 5-10 times a day, but the trick is, they don't do it until failure. They just do it as long as it feels kinda comfortable. So basically they need little recovery from that. It is not hypertrophy training, it is more like etching in a neural pathway, although some hypertrophy is supposed to happen along the road.

Hypothesis: I think the major body building or power lifting trainers like Rippetoe, who write the books and make the popular methods, have incredibly lot of willpower. When they train to failure, it means they train so hard that I would run away crying for 20% of the struggle they put up with. This is why they need 48 hours (or more) time to recover or else they get overtrained. But for people with normal amounts of willpower like me, where training to failure means stopping an exercise when it is starting to get uncomfortable or kinda boring or look there is something shiny over there, very little recovery is needed from that. Not 48 hours, maybe not even 12. Remember, people used to use strength all day, every day, like unloading coal. Their recovery was 8 hours of sleeping and another 4 spent on whatever, their "training" was 12 hours long every day. The trick is, they never ever went even 10-20% to what a body building trainer would consider training to failure or muscle exhaustion.

This really should be factored in! People who are unable to go anywhere near the intensity of the pros, people whose weight training feels a lot like unloading coal (it gets tiresome or boring and thus stopped earlier than it gets real muscle failure), don't need 48 hours of recovery and basically will never be overtrained.

The problem is, this is something the pros don't write about this problem as it does not exist for them. They tell you to use 60% or 70% of your one rep max, but what does a one rep max even mean? Does it mean "I either lift this or die here" level of dedication, or does it mean a "well, a weight bigger than this would feel kinda hard and I am already sweating and feel a bit tired and I need to meet Joey for a beer in 25 mins, so let's call it 1RPM and call it a day", which is more likely for mere mortals?

That is why listeing to pros is suboptimal for mere mortals.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2015-04-15T00:01:30.304Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think "willpower" is something like system 2 hitting system 1 with a hammer to overcome the objections it has. Getting more willpower means getting a bigger hammer etc. I think this is mostly a waste of time. You want to figure out what evidence that system 1 takes seriously looks like and then present it with some.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-15T09:02:03.333Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is an excellent visual example, but I am not sure it holds. System 1 is optimized for the ancestral environment where calories are scarce and exercise is plenty, either chasing down the calories or running away from something that considers you a nice source of calories. So of course System 1 wants to be lazy all day and stuff itself with food, it is a perfect strategy for the ancestral environment where it has little chance do that, but what little rest or feasting it can get, it should. It is hugely suboptimal for the modern environment. System 2 is simply telling System 1 "shut up, everything you want to do (wrt to food or exercise) is completely wrong in this modern environment". System 1 simply does not have any valid arguments.

And as far as I can tell, System 1 takes only three things seriously, fear of immediate danger, chasing some immediately rewarding shiny thing, or social pressure / conformism / validation / status and all that. The willpower hammer is more or less trying to work the fear pathway.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2015-04-15T18:06:03.114Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You're right that the situation probably does not look like that simple picture. But I've always been dubious of the assertion that the AE was scarce on calories. Studies on hunter gatherers find they work about 20 hours per week to sustain themselves.

Edit: " Later, in 1996, Ross Sackett performed two distinct meta-analyses to empirically test Sahlin's view. The first of these studies looked at 102 time-allocation studies, and the second one analyzed 207 energy-expenditure studies. Sackett found that adults in foraging and horticultural societies work, on average, about 6.5 hours a day"

So that's still quite a bit of work, but definitely not sunup to sundown work.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-15T20:37:16.704Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Good point, but System 1 is far older than that... going back to the "lizard brain" basically. But this sounds like a worthwhile thing to investigate, I just don't yet know how. Did they just by magic chance have the balance that the amount of work that makes one just about comfortably tired yields just about enough calories? I wonder why either they didn't work harder just to afford to feast hard, or the opposite, enjoy being too lazy and put up with suboptimal calories for a day or week?

comment by RomeoStevens · 2015-04-16T00:46:07.003Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Causation goes the other way. A creature evolved that can sustain itself with an amount of effort that makes it comfortably tired. If the AE was harsher we would be better inclined to working 80 hour weeks perhaps.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-16T07:19:00.809Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, this sounds sensible. Still, I cannot exactly put my finger on it, but something must be missing from this picture...

Nevertheless, I find your idea quite interesting. Basically, building a self-motivation science based on what kind of arguments, evidence or motivation does System 1 finds the most moving. I see potential in it.

I think as a first step we could split up System 1 to two parts, the really old ones, and the more specifically human parts. The really old parts probably only know the carrot and the stick, immediate reward and immediate fear. The more specifically human parts are I think predominantly social. I find the theory highly plausible that human intelligence evolved because of a selective pressure of competition inside the species and not some external pressure, because an external pressure should have resulted in a normal distribution of intelligence in the primate species, and basically today we would have half-retarded chimp servants. This runaway arms race of intelligence inside one species must be caused by some pressure inside the species. Probably sexual selection and mating. From this angle, the argument or evidence the human part of System 1is most likely to pay attention to is social status or sex appeal.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-04-16T19:36:34.052Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's evidence that people will move for the fun of it, and more so if movement is socially supported.

I suggest that the desire for movement gets trained out of a lot of people through being expected to be still a lot of the time when young, and also because ordinary non-athletic movement is presented as too low status to be motivating.

I may be overdoing this, but I think taking a half hour walk lacks coolness, while running marathons, or at least half marathons, is the minimum needed to count as exercise.

Also, the default idea for exercise is that it should be simple movements done at a level of intensity that many people find unpleasant to painful.My paranoid reading is that exercise is structured to be unpleasant so that there's a status gain for people who do it.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-17T05:56:13.963Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, one thing is true, if an evil genius wanted to make people sedentary, inventing classrooms and teachers who frown upon fidgeting would be an excellent way to :)

A related issue is that at some point around puberty kids find it no longer matching their half-adult dignity to just run around playing. At that point they don't really have many ideas what other ways to move.

I think it also got less social, people used to do sports together, now run or lift alone.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-04-17T06:44:01.486Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think car seats are also part of the problem.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-04-16T04:34:50.313Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Skipping a day is useful for hypertrophy. Not so sure how useful it is for strength.

Depends on the strength program. Powerlifters often train just 3 days a week, with each day focused around one of the major lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift).

Olympic weightlifters train more often and work most of the same muscle groups each training day. They'll focus each training day around one of the two Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk). I believe they usually train 4 days a week.

And then there are specialties like the Smolov Routine which has a cycle of intense squatting four days a week for three weeks. However, this level of intensity is not sustainable in the long run.

Hypothesis: I think the major body building or power lifting trainers like Rippetoe, who write the books and make the popular methods, have incredibly lot of willpower.

They're also the sort who'll come out of a hellish training session thinking "This is great," not "Never again". Willpower alone won't get you through unless you really think it's all worth it.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2015-04-14T12:37:48.066Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the advice. I don't want to do alternating days, because doing the same thing every day makes it easier to have as a habit (for me, anyway). More weight with less reps/set and doing a circuit both make sense. I'm sort of combining weight maintenance and strength goals, and I should probably meet with someone who advises on these questions for a living instead of winging it.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-14T12:58:28.042Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Pavel Tstatsouline certainly does, and in Naked Warrior claims daily training, even more than once daily training, works as long as it is not done until failure. It is feasible to make people do pull-ups every time they exit the kitchen, but not until failure. The mainstream advice, which recommends 48 hours of rest, is based on training to failure. I think the difference is that the not-to-failure training is less like usual training and more like work, like digging with a shovel every day as a job.

comment by Elo · 2015-04-16T08:25:39.074Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Warning re:6.

telling people about your plan to "improve things by X" will cause people to generally say, "good on you" and cause your brain to go "I am so good because I did X", even if you haven't even started X, before you got to the gym, before you lost weight, before you made any improvement. Your brain will say, "well done, we did it". this often leads people to not do X because they have already been rewarded for doing it.

Be aware of this, and don't fall into the trap. Also do not advise people to apply external accountability without this kind of warning. Exernal accountability is great, if applied to people who WILL KEEP YOU ACCOUNTABLE. Not the kind of friends you might see and only talk to every two months, where your accountability will not happen.

Accountability is not simple. Be accountable to reliable and relevant people, not "everyone you know".

TL;DR; Brains lie to themselves, can reward you for sharing your goals, not completing them. Be accountable to reliable and relevant people, not "everyone you know".

comment by Dutchmo · 2015-04-14T20:25:03.478Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Good work.

Two additional techniques that are very powerful:

  1. Journaling. This means keep track of your workouts and progress. What I recommend is also recording injuries, health issues, and obstacles. This is tremendously valuable in the long term. It also seems to strengthen habits. Sort of like the maintenance manual for your car. I also recommend using a physical wirebound journal, with a pen/pencil, rather than some type of electronic solution. My journal has sat in my car in 120 degree texas heat, had liquid splashed on it, been dropped .. no issues!

  2. Visualization. Very powerful when mastered (I haven't, but still give it a shot). Anecdotally, a lot of top-level athletes have cited this as being a game changer. Its basically just using your imagination. It can also be used to generate motivation on-the-fly. I sometimes imagine being back in highschool when in the weightroom or running.

comment by bingobongo · 2015-04-14T10:36:01.412Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My goal is “become able to do at least one pull up, or more if possible”

So, 20 months later, did you succeed in this, and if so, how did you modify your goal in time?

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2015-04-14T12:21:57.062Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I can now do at least two consecutive pull ups and sometimes three. Hardly world class, but I feel great about it. I also succeeded last December at the climbing route that, when I couldn't complete it, inspired me to start working out. With the cardio I started a few months ago, I've gone from panting for air and feeling awful after running a mile to being able to run two miles and start to enjoy it.

comment by jam_brand · 2015-04-14T06:04:31.712Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I imagine this may be the TDT post you were thinking of: http://lesswrong.com/lw/4sh/how_i_lost_100_pounds_using_tdt/

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2015-04-14T12:27:36.196Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, thank you! I'll add the link.