We all know that exercise is good for us. But developing and maintaining an exercise habit is much easier said than done.

How hard is it? Well, I remember my exercise behavior prof once remarking that statistically, we have a better chance of quitting heroin cold turkey than we do of maintaining an exercise program beyond 6 months. Yipes.

Why are the numbers so discouraging?

Well, working out – especially at first – isn’t inherently fun. I mean, it certainly can be, but cycling until your legs burn, or lifting heavy things to failure is not most folks’ idea of a good time. Is a good workout satisfying? Totally. But are you having fun in the 5th interval of a Tabata workout? Probably not.

And that’s pretty much what practicing the violin felt like for me. I did it every day because I wanted to get better, and because playing well was important to me, but was it something I’d do for fun and enjoyment? Ha. Please.

Looking back, this was partly because I didn’t really know how to practice and so often had no idea how I was supposed to fill the time. But also, the kind of work that is necessary for improvement is not necessarily enjoyable. Picking apart our weakest areas. Super slow practice. Working on scales, etudes, and technical exercises. Satisfying? Yes. But fun? Not by most folks’ definition.

As such, I would often spend most of a day putting practice off, making excuses, allowing myself to get distracted, and guilt-tripping myself, until it was easier to just get it over with than to keep delaying the inevitable.

But what if I could have made practicing more enjoyable – without diluting its intensity or effectiveness in any way? Might I have been more likely to practice without wasting so much of the weekend dragging my feet?

A recent study of exercise behavior and behavioral economics suggests that there is a simple adjustment that could potentially boost our enjoyment of practicing, and thereby increase our likelihood of getting in a good practice session.

We are not rational decision-makers

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor once remarked “Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.”

And research in behavioral economics has found that our decisions and actions are indeed often based in emotion, rather than logic.

For instance, we have plenty of research and information about how beneficial exercise can be. But being more informed doesn’t get us into the gym any more than understanding the benefits of practicing scales makes us any likelier to crack open our trusty book ‘o scales.

So it’s intriguing that there’s a growing body of research which suggests that a better way to increase our likelihood of exercising is to increase the enjoyableness of exercise (i.e. how exercise feels).

Which naturally leads to the question – how do you make exercise (or practicing) more enjoyable?

But wait, there’s a twist!

Well, therein lies the challenge, because we don’t want to increase one’s enjoyment of a workout by making exercise easier, and thus less effective. After all, sometimes there’s no getting around the fact that we just have to roll up our sleeves and do the work. Fortunately, it turns out that the enjoyableness of a challenging experience is not as set in stone as it might seem.

For instance, our perception of how much we enjoy or dislike an experience depends quite a bit on how that experience plays out over time. As in, we tend to prefer experiences that become more pleasurable over time, as opposed to experiences that start out great, but become increasingly unpleasant over time – even if the total amount of pleasure we experienced is about the same.

Sort of like a movie that takes a while to get into, but ends great (e.g. The Usual Suspects ), vs. a film that hooks you from the start, but ends with such an unsatisfying conclusion that we can’t believe we sat through the whole thing just for that (e.g. Arlington Road ).

Two workouts

To take a closer look at this in the context of exercise, a group of researchers recruited 46 participants to participate in two mirror-opposite 15-minute exercise sessions.

22 participants were in the increasing-intensity group. They started out on an exercise bike at an easy, comfortable pace, but their workout intensity progressively increased over the course of 15 minutes.

24 participants were in the decreasing-intensity group. These participants began their workout at the most challenging level, and their workout intensity progressively decreased to an easy, comfortable pace over the course of 15 minutes.

So what sort of difference did this make?

Two very different experiences

As predicted, the increasing-intensity group’s pleasure ratings decreased as the workout became more challenging1. Meanwhile, the decreasing-intensity group’s pleasure ratings increased, as their workout became easier. And interestingly, the average overall ratings for the workouts were pretty much the same. Meaning, that overall, both groups experienced about the same amount of pleasure (or lack thereof) during the course of the workout.

However, a very different story emerged when participants were asked how they felt about the workout after they finished exercising.

The increasing-intensity group’s average post-exercise pleasure rating was 2.092. The decreasing-intensity group’s average rating was 2.56, indicating that they remembered the workout as being more pleasant even though there wasn’t any difference in their ratings of the workout during the exercise session itself.

The post-exercise enjoyment numbers were also quite different. While the increasing-intensity group’s average enjoyment score was 86.64, the decreasing-intensity group’s score was 100.393. So apparently, a workout that starts tough, but gets easier towards the end, is a more enjoyable workout.

Most intriguingly, there was a big difference between the two groups’ remembered and forecasted pleasure ratings. The decreasing-intensity group remembered the workout as being much more pleasurable than the increasing-intensity group – with scores of 55.51 vs. 25.054.

The decreasing-intensity group also anticipated that they would enjoy doing the same workout again in the future way more than the increasing-intensity group thought they would – with scores of 51.75 vs. 31.475.

Take action

Exercising and practicing aren’t exactly the same, but this “start tough/end easy” principle is intriguing. I certainly wish I could rewind the clock and see how I might have responded to this back in the day.

I think there are a couple applications of this principle in the practice room (and in theory, rehearsals and lessons too). The most direct application is perhaps to identify the most important – yet most challenging – practice task or practice challenge on your to-do list, and tackle that first in each practice session. With that out of the way, you could then move on to less onerous tasks, and end with the most enjoyable/easiest things on your list. You may know this as the “eat your frog” strategy.

Of course, this means creating a practice to-do list and taking a moment to do some prioritizing, but that’s probably not such a bad idea anyways, no? As someone once said, “In the absence of clearly defined priorities, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

Footnotes

  1. While exercising, the participants were asked to rate how they felt every 3 minutes or so, on a scale of +5 (I feel very good) to -5 (I feel very bad)
  2. On a scale of +5=I feel very good to -5=I feel very bad.
  3. Where 72 is the mid-point, and 126 is maximum enjoyment.
  4. Where +100=very pleasant and -100=very unpleasant.
  5. Where -100=most unpleasant imaginable and +100=most pleasant imaginable.