The Fit List

Athletes Don't Exercise, They Train

Rule One: Don't confine your training to the gym. Movement needs to be a lifestyle. Rule Two: Don't just move. You need a goal. And you need to train.

Athletes Don't Exercise, They Train

Running Singapore Photo: joyt/Thinkstock

For decades, scientists have scrambled to figure out what inspires us to move. They've linked certain regions of the brain to exercise motivation, decided having partners helps (but only if they aren't too talkative), and encouraged us to adopt a dog to walk more.

But there are two simple changes you can make to keep yourself going that don't involve drugs or dogs: Make movement your lifestyle—and train, don't exercise.

The simple first step away from yo-yo exercising and toward a healthier lifestyle is to make movement a priority. Scads of articles over the past few years have told us how sitting too much is killing us and that even five minutes of running can have real health benefits. Weaving something like a short run into your daily routine won't necessarily make you lose weight or turn you into Laird Hamilton, but becoming a mover will make the transition to training easier.

Training means structuring workouts toward an athletic goal, like a race or another organized event. Exercising, on the other hand, is movement for the in-the-moment feel-goodness of it. There's nothing wrong with exercise. It's just that, for many people, the reasons they exercise are often weak and lead to poor long-term adherence.

Historically, it wasn't so hard to exercise—before office jobs became the norm and the Internet put many employees on call 24/7. But if squeezing it in feels like a chore or comes from a negative place, science says you won't stick with it. Luckily, the recent explosion of athletic events has made it easier to find an intriguing race, even one close to home. And the benefits of picking a training goal are well documented. Advantage number one: It encourages consistency.

A study published in the Journal of Sport Behavior found that embarking on a marathon program like Team in Training’s makes people feel a "growing connection with the cause, improved fitness and athleticism, and mutual training support." People in training also tend to stick with their workouts because of the "personal growth, fundraising, and the response from family and friends" that come from sweating with a purpose.

Athletes who exercise to lose weight, for example, don't always drop the pounds, leading them to give up. "I also wonder how beneficial it can be to exercise in such a negative way, where you're constantly thinking, 'I'm not good enough, and I don't like my body.' Who wants to keep that up?" Michelle Segar, a psychology researcher at the University of Michigan, told More. She was talking about middle-age women in particular, but men may face a similar problem when vanity is the primary motivator.

So the next time you feel like slacking off, consider signing up for something. While research linking regions of our brains to exercise motivation is fascinating, its ultimate goal may be to develop drugs to help keep us moving. Hitting a "register" button could work just as well.

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