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The Surprising Way To Guarantee You’ll Exercise More

Writing down a happy memory could be all the motivation you need to start exercising again


by Sarah Mahoney

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Some days lacing up your sneakers is more difficult than others. Lucky for aspiring athletes, psychologists at the University of New Hampshire have discovered a super-easy way to boost motivation: Simply take a minute to recall a positive exercise memory.

Researchers asked about 150 people to recall either a positive or negative exercise memory, while another group were not asked to remember anything. Subjects weren’t instructed to do anything differently, or told that this was a study of exercise behavior. Yet one week later, when researchers interviewed them again, participants who had conjured up a happy memory had exercised an average of one day more per week. (Those who had called up a negative memory worked out more than the control group, too, but not as much as the positive memory group.)

“The beauty of this intervention was that it was so easy,” says Mathew Biondolillo, a doctoral student in psychology at UNH and co-author of the study. “All the participant had to do was recall a quick memory, and jot down a few sentences about it. Writing down the memory was enough to get them back into exercise.”

Because college students participated in the study, “we can’t be sure what the results would be if it were done on people in midlife,” says David Pillemer, Dr. Samuel E. Paul Professor of Developmental Psychology at UNH and lead researcher, told Life Reimagined. “But it certainly underscores the power of memory in exercise behavior.”

The research provides proof that it’s worth experimenting, both with positive and negative memories, since “it’s quite possible some people are more motivated by one or the other, or by different types of memories at different times.” The memories don’t have to be elaborate to develop a fitness workout plan. “It can be as simple as remembering what it felt like to run outdoors when you were little,” he says. Negative memories might include how humbling it was to start exercising again after a long hiatus. One of Pillemer’s favorite examples is basketball legend Michael Jordan, who has often said that memories of not making the high school varsity team were highly motivating.

The tension between positive and negative memories is supported by experiments Pillemer has done in other areas, including self-esteem. Typically, he says, “invoking positive memories works to increase motivation and behavior change, but negatives memories are better than doing nothing.”

Since jogging your brain for a memory or two is painless and free, why not see if it can get your feet moving and start exercising again.

Photo Credit: Donald Iain Smith/Moment/Getty