Nobody looks forward to the same old boring meal every day or a night of bad sex. Most of us take these uncomfortable moments as one-offs and course correct for fun and variety as quickly as possible. Or we simply stop desiring it. Yet far too many people still think or exercise as something they have to clench their jaws and just get through for the sake of health and beach bodies. They regularly grumble about workouts they hate, classes that make them feel tired just thinking about, or feel resentful about “having” to exercise at all.

But just like sex, exercise should feel pleasurable or positive in other ways. Exercise that feels good to do will naturally make you want to repeat that experience again and again. And just like that, regular physical activity can become a partner for life you don’t want to be without. Indeed, sex is perhaps the perfect analogy.

I’ve found similar thinking in conversations with sex and intimacy expert Lori Hollander, who discusses the important role of pleasure and personal choice in her work.

Remember Pavlov’s dogs, whose mouths watered in anticipation of a good meal when they heard the dinner bell ring? Classical conditioning is something we’ve known about for decades. More modern research studies what is called anticipatory affect: basically, this work shows that the type of “affect” (e.g., feelings) we anticipate we are going to experience from a behavior influences whether or not we choose to do it. If it’s positive, we naturally go toward it. If it’s negative, we deeply want to avoid it. And studies on intrinsic versus controlled motivation have found that we tend to look forward to doing the things we choose versus  resisting doing things that others tell us to do, or that we feel we should do.

Think about it: If you were restricted by law to having sex in a “right” way,  how would you feel? When the power of choice is taken away from us, or even when we freely give it over to an outside power, we create a power vacuum inside ourselves that sucks all the pleasure out of what we do. We no longer have ownership over it. Yet, many of us don’t think about exercise in this way.

Yet given what we already know about ourselves, many, many (many!) people continue to bang their heads against the sad treadmill of “should do” exercise that not only doesn’t bring joy and it even causes pain. If this is you, here’s my advice: dump that partner and start having some fun. Once you do, you’ll be surprised and delighted by the new pleasure and joy, and will find yourself desiring to do it again and again.


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