In 2002, researchers at New Mexico State University studied 266 individuals, most of whom worked out at least three times a week. They found that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives.
However, the reason they continued exercising — why it became a habit — was because of a specific cue and a specific reward.
If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or always going for a run at the same time of day) and a clear reward (like a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog). But countless studies have shown that, at first, the rewards inherent in exercise aren’t enough.
So to teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you really enjoy — like a small piece of chocolate — after your workout.
This is counterintuitive, because most people start exercising to lose weight. But the goal here is to train your brain to associate a certain cue (“It’s 5 o’clock”) with a routine (“Three miles down!”) and a reward (“Chocolate!”).
Eventually, your brain will start expecting the reward inherent in exercise (“It’s 5 o’clock. Three miles down! Endorphin rush!”), and you won’t need the chocolate anymore. In fact, you won’t even want it. But until your neurology learns to enjoy those endorphins and the other rewards inherent in exercise, you need to jump-start the process.
And then, over time, it will become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. You won’t want the chocolate anymore. You’ll just crave the endorphins. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, will start triggering a craving for the inherent rewards to come.