Most of us know that exercise is good for us. The research is clear: exercise makes us live longer. 

You would think that if we all knew movement was key to a longer life, all of us would be doing it religiously. And yet, a lot of people struggle to actually do it. I see this amongst some of my peers, and I’ve been there myself at times. In fact, the latest information says that only 23 per cent of Americans are exercising enough, and even fewer Canadians.

In what should come as no surprise, nearly 70 per cent of Americans say they want to live to 100 years of age. So, yeah, no walking contradictions there. And ultimately there’s plenty of information out there about how to set and achieve your fitness goals, which we know will extend our lives. But so many experts miss an important piece of the equation when they give us solid and timely examples like “losing 10 pounds” or “run a 5K this summer” – engagement is hard when the goal is far away. 

When my son turns 16, I will be 60. That is some sobering math. I want to be as physically fit as I can be to keep up with my kids as they grow. Yet, working out so I can keep up with my son in 15 years cannot be my daily motivation. That’s like saying “a project at work is due in 15 years, better start working your butt off today!” It’s just not going to happen. The fact is that if a project is due in three months, it’s still hard to find the motivation to work hard on it today. And exercise is painful, so our ability to reason with procrastination is amplified.

So, on a daily basis, when my alarm goes off at 5:23 a.m., I always reframe my “why” to be on the very real psychological benefits that help me today. I save the idea that this has the potential to help me play with my son in the long term, live healthier in the longer term, and all the other benefits that are only partially in my control for feeling good about myself after the fact. With that in mind, here are my three go-to, snooze-busting, mind-control ideas I tell myself in the dark of the winter morning.

1. Exercise will improve and stabilize my emotional state, today.

If I work out, I know I’m going to have a better day — one with less anxiety and more groundedness. The reverse is also true. If I miss a couple of days of exercise, I can start to feel anxiety building. Most of the time, after I exercise, that anxiety is gone. I keep that in mind when I notice anxiety entering my psyche, and I’m mindful of when my last workouts were.

There’s a ton of research on the link between exercise and our emotional experience. A simplified version is this: when we move/exercise, a number of beneficial neurotransmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine, are released into our brains. These substances can be responsible for lowering feelings of anxiety and depression.

2. Exercise will help me think more sharply, quickly, and clearly, today.

If I have an important meeting, presentation, talk, or life event happening, I promise you I am going to work out that day. I’ve gotten myself up at 4:30 a.m. just to make sure I get my workout in before a big 7 a.m. meeting. That’s how important it is to me.

On days I’ve had a solid morning workout, my decision-making is sharper, I can find my words much more easily (less “ums” and “likes,” more direct communication), and I’m able to work through problems in my head at a faster pace. Research backs this up and has shown “the effect of exercise on delaying discounting, meaning the tendency to choose an immediate reward over a larger reward in the future.”  If you value how you show up at work like I do, then being deliberate about this benefit makes the early morning wake-ups easy. 

3. Exercise will provide me with stamina throughout the day, today.

It seems ridiculous to me, even at this point. Go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and wake up at 5:30 a.m. to workout = feel great until 9 p.m. 

Go to bed at 9:30 p.m., sleep in, and wake up at 7 a.m. to start my day = feel awful and rundown by 3 p.m. 

It’s stupid, yet true. Damn you, physiology. And it is physiology. In a nutshell, exercising causes us to produce more mitochondria inside our muscle cells. These little guys create fuel out of glucose from the food we eat and out of oxygen from the air we breathe. Having more of them increases our body’s energy supply. Yeah, it’s that simple. Exercising also increases oxygen circulation inside our bodies… meaning the mitochondria have more fuel. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

What do these three benefits have in common? 

They’re immediate. I get to reap the rewards of, and feel, my efforts. Right now, here, today. My long-term goal — my “why” — can definitely help me push through the final mile of a hard run or the last interval of a tough workout. But it’s the knowledge that the effort will absolutely make my day better that keeps me consistent and ensures I don’t hit the snooze.