I’m Trying to Make Exercise Irresistible
A couple weeks ago when I spoke with Steve O’Donnell, a board member of the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association and founder of the nonprofit Therapies for Inherited Neuropathies, I was struck by his enthusiasm and can-do spirit.
I envy O’Donnell’s boundless energy and ability to intentionally take the stairs, park far away from a destination, or run a few miles every day. He’s managed to make a habit out of his exercise routine. And none of this seems to be a chore.
I know he isn’t alone. I know many athletes with CMT remain active out of dedication and habit. I’m in awe of all of them.
But I don’t think I can say the same about me. I wish I were different. I wish I didn’t find integrating an at-home exercise routine into my daily life so difficult. Doing so is especially important for CMTers because, as O’Donnell said, “if you lose [capacity] to CMT, it’s really hard to get that back.”
This desire of mine to form a habit around an exercise routine reminded me of an interview I heard on the radio a few months ago with Shankar Vedantam, host of the radio program “Hidden Brain,” and Wendy Wood, a professor and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.”
In that episode of “Hidden Brain,” I first heard about a staircase in Seattle nicknamed the “Irresistible Staircase” because its inviting design coaxes folks into making the healthier choice of taking the stairs.
Apparently, designers accomplished this with a few tricks, including ensuring that the stairs are prominently displayed to visitors when they first enter the building. Visitors see the stairs as the first option, not the elevator, which is still available but hidden behind doors.
Designers also made it a point to reward stair-climbers with views of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound. After a time, because the staircase has become an attraction by itself, tenants and visitors now take the stairs by default, to appreciate the staircase’s design and the views of Seattle.
As noted by Vedantam, these design choices represent a few important lessons to keep in mind when attempting to form good habits: associating the desired habit with rewards, minimizing barriers, and associating the desired habit with cues or triggers.
I’ve implemented these once before, earlier this year before the specter of COVID-19 tainted everything. As a self-admitted couch potato by nature, it took quite a bit of self-training to get myself to my local gym regularly. Eventually, I got into the habit of going at least three times a week.
My local gym is less than a five-minute drive, so excuses were minimal. I rewarded myself for going to the gym by telling myself that I could only watch YouTube or Twitch while warming up on a stationary bike or treadmill. I created a routine: I knew that if it was Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, I’d get myself to the gym. If it was Thursday, I’d go for badminton.
I was happy with the routine I had set up.
But I couldn’t have predicted how COVID-19 would affect us. Now I feel like I’m back to square one with my fitness routine. While I’m trying to maintain regular walks around my neighborhood, exercises, and stretches based on an exercise video series, I still struggle.
I’m slowly working on building new and better habits. I’m rewarding myself by listening to podcasts while doing my exercises. And I’m trying to maintain a regular routine by doing my exercises late in the evening.
Time will tell if I am successful.
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