4 Ways to Hack Your Mental Reward System to Make Exercising a Habit

The struggle is real—so use these psychological tactics to get yourself to the gym.

Your alarm goes of at 6:15 a.m.

By 6:30, you’re passed out again. The result of a ten-minute internal monologue that ended with a very persuasive argument from your inner voice on the benefits of getting 30 more minutes of sleep.

Or perhaps that persuasive essay is presented at the end of the work day, arguing the upsides of a night on the couch with takeout over spin class.

For many, the motivation to hit the gym just doesn’t come naturally, especially if your workout routine fell off your to-do list during the winter. Now, as the warmer months creep up on us we sulk back to the gym, wishing we were headed for happy hour instead.

The struggle is real.

So it’s time to trick yourself into feeling motivated enough to get to the gym by using your own mental reward system against itself. Here are four tricky ways to hack the brain’s pleasure system:

Schedule a Random Exercise Each Week 

Our brain loves novelty. Research published in Cell Press used fMRI imaging to see just how our brains reacted to novelty. They showed subjects images such as indoor and outdoor scenes and faces with occasional novel images thrown in. The experiment found that a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area (SN/VTA) was activated by novel images—that is, brand new images that hadn’t been seen before.

“It is a well-known fact amongst scientists that the midbrain region regulates our levels of motivation and our ability to predict rewards by releasing dopamine in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain,” said Dr. Emrah Düzel, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, co-author of the study. The findings suggest that since novelty activates this brain area, experiencing novelty may, in itself, have an impact on dopamine levels.

“When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. The brain learns that the stimulus, once familiar, has no reward associated with it and so it loses its potential. For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.”

Let’s translate this to our workout routine: You’ve been taking spin class four times a week for a few months now. So throwing in a random pilates class, playing around with some TRX bands, or checking out that brand new treadmill studio that opened up near your office, will throw some novelty into your otherwise mundane routine. That novelty may just provide the release of dopamine you need to boost your motivation.

Partner Up

We know, the idea of a fitness buddy seems archaic. But mentally, our fitness ancestors were on to something. Tapping into the social element of working out through a group fitness class or by convincing your best friend to meet you at the gym, can actually help activate your brain reward system, which can reverse the negative feelings you have come to associate with dragging your ass out of bed to exercise.

You know that giddy feeling you get heading into a party? That’s the result of your brain’s reward system firing up during a social event. “The dopamine systems are activated during social interactions,” said Dr. Larry Young. “We also know that the dopamine system is interacting with the oxytocin system. With both acting at the same time, you activate the social aspects and the reward aspects.”

And no, it doesn’t require a cooler of beer and a round of flip cup to be activated. Social rewards are similar to those reaped by food and drugs: Mutual social interactions are experienced as innately rewarding. Mounting evidence supports this idea by demonstrating increased activity in dopaminergic brain circuits not only during interactions with loved ones or friends, but with any contextually relevant person with a cooperative relationship (e.g., engaged in a joint task), according to research published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Tapping into these neural pathways by making exercise a social event can help you overcome any negative association or feelings you have toward exercising.

Create a Neurological “Habit Loop

We don’t all have that intrinsic motivation that allows us to pop out of bed an hour earlier than necessary to squeeze in a workout or carve time out after a long day at the office to work up a sweat. So, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, encourages people to create an extrinsic motivation (until that motivation to exercise becomes intrinsic).

The habit loop that Charles Duhigg outlines is a three-step process that involves a cue to trigger the behavior (placing your sneakers next to your bag), the routine (making it through a boxing class) and then the reward (breakfast from your favorite or watching an episode of your latest Netflix obsession). “An extrinsic reward is so powerful because your brain can latch on to it and make the link that the behavior is worthwhile. It tells our brain whether we should store this habit for future use or not,” he explained. “It increases the odds the routine becomes a habit.”

By rewarding yourself with a latte from your favorite coffee shop after the gym, you’re creating artificial motivation until that motivation becomes intrinsic. As your brain begins to associate the sweat and pain of a workout with the surge of endorphins that follows, the workout will become a reward in and of itself, eliminating the need for an external reward to motivate yourself.

Bribe Yourself 

People will do a lot things for money (we drag ourselves to the office a 8 a.m. to sit behind a desk for eight hours … enough said). And it turns out that a financial incentive may be a more powerful motivator than health when it comes to exercise.

A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that a group of obese people chose to exercise regularly instead of paying 20 percent more for health insurance. After a year, nearly 97 percent of the enrollees had met or exceeded the average goal of 5,000 steps a day (including the most resistant participants who disagreed with the financial incentives and found the program “coercive”). Another study published in Econometrica found that people who were paid $100 to go to the gym doubled their attendance rate, and showed improvements on health indicators such as weight, waist size, and pulse rate. This led researchers to argue that there’s a place for financial intervention in habit formation.

If vanity (the countdown is on for bathing suit season) and health aren’t big enough  motivators to get you off the couch, it may be time to put some money on the table. Instead of adding $10 to your vacation fund every time you follow through with your workout, set aside a lump sum and deduct money for each day you don’t exercise. A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that giving someone a financial incentive and then threatening to take it away works better than the promise of a reward when it comes to exercising. The researchers found that being given a lump sum and then threatened with the possibility of losing money led people to exercise more than being given a small amount each time they completed a workout.

The findings suggest that the way a financial incentive is framed is important. So instead of promising yourself a new pair of sneakers if you stick to your workout for a month or adding a dollar to a jar each day you hit the gym, set aside $100 and take a dollar away each time you skip  work. Set it aside as a donation to the political candidate you can’t stand. How’s that for motivation?