For a better workout, trick your brain

We all know exercise is good for you, but its benefits don\’t always motivate us to set an alarm and lace up our running shoes. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 75 percent of Americans do not meet recommended guidelines for aerobic and strength-training exercise.

Many experts say the key to better, more regular workouts is not in the body, but in the mind. As anyone deciding between a Netflix binge and an evening jog can understand, the body may be willing, but the spirit sometimes needs a kick-start.

However, there are some tools that can trick our reluctant brains into finding the motivation to go back to the gym or hit that bike trail.

The brain loves a game, especially if it\’s hard to predict or offers intermittent rewards, said Daya Grant, a neuroscientist and mental performance coach in Los Angeles. Use it to your advantage.

For example, Milo Bryant, a performance coach in San Diego, uses an exercise bag for his group classes. They\’ll get an exercise from one bag and a rep count from the other and whatever comes up, that\’s what they do, he said.

Apps like Zombie Run! a cross between a fitness tracker and an episode of The Last of Us takes it to a new level. Like most running apps, it lets you track your route and pace. The twist is how it streams missions through your headset as you run, directing you to run to avoid a zombie or to gather supplies to build a virtual shelter.

The Rouvy app connects to a smart trainer, which converts your regular bike into a stationary one, for a virtual ride through different city streets around the world. It can even change the resistance of your bike as you hit dips and hills. Pam Moore, a cycling instructor in Boulder, Colorado, said she once cycled through Beverly Hills with a friend in Portland, Oregon, without leaving the house.

Even though she was ahead of me, we could still ride together, Ms. Moore said.

Our brains also love things that feel like they were made for us. In a recent study, athletes who believed they were receiving a personalized training plan outnumbered those who thought they were following a generic one.

Personal trainers are a natural way to capitalize on this perception. Or you can use an app like Stronger by the Day, where trainers take your fitness stats (the heaviest load you can lift, for example) and produce a strength-training program that\’s right for you.

I\’m obsessed with it, Mrs. Moore said. Just by showing up and doing what she said, I became so much stronger.

According to Panteleimon Ekkekakis, an exercise psychologist at Michigan State University, we tend to remember experiences based on how we feel in the end. That\’s why he suggests reverse the order of the exercises by doing the hardest part first after a good warm-up and gradually reducing the intensity so you leave the session with the best possible memory. This reverse incline approach not only increases enjoyment right after a workout, but also improves how we feel about exercise for up to a week afterward.

Habits can become hardwired into the brain. So stick your fitness to an anchor habit—something you already do every day, said Ben Reale, a personal trainer in Atlanta. For example, if you drop your kids off school at 8:00am, be in the weight room by 8:15am

Like the Pavlovian answer, when we stack these habits together consistently over several weeks, we take the decision-making point, willpower, out of the equation, Mr. Reale said.

More reluctant athletes may need a little more. Try pairing your workout with an activity you love, like catching up on the latest season of The Bachelor. This clustering of temptations is magnified if you only do the desired activity when you exercise, said Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

So you\’re just indulging in your low-key TV or listening to your vampire novels at the gym, Dr. Milkman said.

The most effective psychological trick for building an exercise habit might also be the simplest: Sign up for something be it a 5K in three months, a tennis tournament in a year, or a father-daughter dance next spring.

When you\’re training for something, every workout has a purpose, Mr. Bryant said. Set smaller goals along the way, making sure they are challenging but achievable.

Most importantly, find out what works best for you while keeping in mind what it means that could change. Exercise is more sustainable if we have an emotional connection to it.

That\’s why some people run marathons for causes or dedicate every mile to a specific person, Dr. Grant said.

Connie Chang is a freelance science and parenting writer in Silicon Valley.

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