Improve your relationship with exercise

August 03 2017

Last month we teamed up with behavioural scientist Dr Anna Machin, who's also chief matchmaker on Channel 4's 'Married At First Sight'.

We set Anna the task of answering your questions on exercise, your relationship with it, and how you can better motivate yourself to do it. She first solved your queries live on Facebook, but in case you missed it, check out her tips on motivation, willpower and learning to love fitness below.

Anna Machin edit

Q: I exercise three times a week and I'm generally pretty fit. That said, I love anything sweet and feel guilty every time I have a treat. How can I improve my willpower?

Anna: First of all, don't feel guilty every time you have something sweet. We all have a natural propensity to want to eat sweet stuff, so it's really all about balance. If you're exercising that often throughout the course of the week then it's fine to have the odd treat, and you do have to reward yourself for doing that exercise too – it's not easy!

Q: I'm not a fan of exercise – it just doesn't come naturally to me. How can I change my mind set?

Anna: It’s completely normal to not love exercise. We, as humans, haven't evolved to love exercise. Initially we did it out of need, we needed to go and chase down food. But now there's no need to do that [food is readily available], so we do actually have to encourage ourselves to go out and exercise. Everybody has to fight against their natural tendency to want to sit on the sofa!

Yes, you do have to use will power, you have to self motivate for a certain period of time. But once you get over that initial five or six week struggle, your endorphins will kick in and you'll actually start to want to exercise, to feel that high from it. Endorphins are great – they make you feel wonderful and they’re also addictive. Use all your will power to get over the initial hump and then you should be OK.

Q: I find exercise hard – is it just not in my DNA?!

Anna: It is fair to say that some people are quite lucky and have a set of genes that makes them prone to want to exercise more, and that the effects of exercise work quicker on them – for example, their aerobic fitness would increase more quickly and their muscle tone would improve sooner. But let me say that nobody has a perfect set of genes. I don't want anyone to think that fitness ability is written in your genes, though – exercise is mainly psychological. It's about getting over that negative relationship, for whatever reason, that you have with exercise.

You don't have to be the fastest person in the gym or the best person in the class, it's just about doing something that's good for you. Find something that fits in with who you are and what you do. Acknowledge that there will be times when you don't want to do it, but that doesn't mean that exercise is not suited to you at all.

Q: I always tell myself that I'm going to get 'beach body ready' but I never do. How can I help myself to achieve it?

Anna: OK, firstly, try and be realistic with your expectations. Rather than looking outside of yourself and comparing yourself to other people, set yourself a goal that you know you can reach. We're not all going to look like a supermodel on the beach, so just aim to feel comfortable in your own skin.

Find an exercise that suits you and that you enjoy, or even just feel comfortable doing. If you've got a good group of friends, why not exercise together? The benefits of endorphins – that euphoric feeling – are ramped up in a group.

Q: I get bored of exercise, how can I find some interesting to stick to?

Anna: Ok, so your relationship with both exercise and your partner can be a similar thing. You have to be conscious of the relationship. You have to work hard at it. There things we can learn from relationship science that we can transfer into our relationship with fitness.

First of all, think about who you are. Is the type of exercise that you're doing at the moment actually compatible with that? Think about your personality here: Do you like doing things in big groups, or do you like being by yourself? Do you have a short attention span? Will a long run bore you, and do you need to do short and sharp exercises instead? Be sure to find something that fits your lifestyle and your personality.

Secondly, the best relationships are those that are fresh and fun, and so we need to keep challenging things. And the exact thing goes for exercise. Mix things up, do something different once in a while. 

Q: My new boyfriend orders takeaways every week, which I find hard to resist, and I’m putting on weight. How can I improve my will power?

Anna: It's completely normal to get into a new relationship, get comfortable and then just eat! To stop putting on weight, you should find an activity that engages him and that you can both do together. Then that becomes a nice part of your relationship plus you're getting fit at the same time. If he's not hugely motivated, be sure to reward yourselves – have a couples’ weekend away or something.

Trying to change someone else's habits is a tough one though, so try and find something active that he wants to do. Otherwise it's just going to be down to your own will power and branching out on your own [like cooking separate meals or going for lighter options when ordering fast food].

Q: Can you really get addicted to working out?

Anna: Absolutely! If you exercise for a reasonable period of time at quite a high aerobic intensity, like 30 minutes of running or a shorter HIIT session, you will get a massive endorphin release. Endorphins are the body's natural opiates and they are addictive. If you keep doing that [several times a week], you will become addicted to that endorphin hit. When you stop that exercise then that level of endorphins dips. Suffering withdrawal symptoms, your brain will be desperate to go back to the thing that gave you that endorphin hit. If you do exercise a few times a week for several weeks, you will start to notice that high and you will soon associate exercise with a really great chemical reward.

For more of Anna’s motivational advice, watch the rest of our interview with her hereFor more fitness inspiration, discover what inspires Clean Eating Alice