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What happened when I stopped counting laps

Witnessing the unbridled energy and joy of a dog running along the beach is delightful. Watching a certain breed of jogger (the determined, grimacing types) can be painful.

The dog is more pleasurable to watch. It’s also the one more likely to keep being active for longer.

According to sports psychology, the factors that motivate people to exercise can be grouped into two main categories – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsically motivated people exercise primarily because they want to, rather than because they feel they have to. They’re driven by the inherent rewards of physical activity – enjoyment, excitement, the satisfaction of mastering physical skills, freedom, autonomy and the sense of flow that comes from being completely absorbed in an activity.

In contrast, people who are more extrinsically motivated tend to feel an external pressure to exercise. The pressure might come from family members or a health professional, a body-beautiful culture that celebrates a lean body, the lure of winning or the desire to please others.

In general, it’s intrinsic motivation that helps people become long-term movers. That’s why the dog – with it’s innate ability to delight in the sensations of movement, and be totally absorbed in the here and now, keeps coming back for more.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was at the shift I noticed in my attitude to swimming when I stopped counting laps. Due to a hip injury I’ve recently turned to swimming for some low impact, aerobic exercise. Initially I approached it with my usual fitness mentality – do X number of laps each session. This left me underwhelmed and looking for excuses not to go. Then one day I thought who cares how many laps I do! I’ll just swim for 30 minutes and do whatever I like. No lap counting. With my awareness freed from the job of counting, I found myself focussing on, and relishing, the sensations of my body moving smoothy through water, the lovely stretch that each stroke gave my muscles, and the sound of my rhythmical breathing. I varied the pace according to how my body felt, rather than how many laps remained. After just two sessions of using this approach I experienced a remarkable shift in my attitude and found myself actively looking forward to my next swim. Without realising it, I had shifted my source of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.
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A study of 486 people published in the International Journal of Sport and Health Science, 2004, found that exercise-starters were high in extrinsic motivation. The desire to win, lose fat, gain muscle, or to get your doctor off your back, can give you a much-needed kick-start. The research found, however, that exercise-maintainers had a very different motivational profile. They were characterised by high levels of intrinsic motivation.
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So if you want your initial burst of activity to last for years rather than weeks, check the balance of your inner and outer motivational drives. If your intrinsic motivation is lacking, the following can help strengthen your innate desire to move.

  • Exercise to please yourself, more so than to please others.
  • Focus on the fun and pleasure of physical activity. Watch animals and children play to remind you what this looks like. If you don’t enjoy your exercise, find an activity you do.
  • When you exercise, focus on enjoying the bodily sensations of moving, here, now. Practices such as tai chi and yoga can help develop your capacity to be present and mindful as you move.
  • Track your progress against yourself, as much as you do against others.
  • Broaden your criteria for success, so that the immediate benefits, such as increased energy or reduced stress levels count as much as future benefits such as weight loss. Read The Intrinsic Exerciser by Jay Kimiecik.