Are You Exercising for the Right Reasons?

Working out should be something you do to be happy, not skinny. Here’s why.

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When most people set out to get some exercise, it's for one reason: to look better. Whether our end goal is weight loss, toning up, or building muscle, we tend to be motivated to exercise by external benefits. However, recent research on willpower hints that this external focus may be counterproductive to our overall success.

The theory is this: Our willpower is an exhaustible resource; we have a certain amount, but it does get used up over the course of the day. Think of it as a bank account that you tap into, as you try to make choices that differ from what you really want to do in order to achieve your weight loss goals:

Order the skinny latte instead of the regular with whip, 10 willpower points.

Eat your home-packed lunch instead of hitting the drive-through, 15 willpower points.

Snack on an apple rather than a bag of chips from the vending machine, 20 willpower points.

It may not take long to end up with a low balance in your willpower bank account, and not have enough energy to resist that tub of ice cream calling your name. And here's the rub: Some researchers speculate that exercising for external reasons only—that is, to lose weight—taps into your willpower bank account much more than exercising for internal reasons, such as relieving stress.

You've probably witnessed this happening. Consider the friend who orders dessert because she "earned it" by going to step class, for example. It's this type of self-sabotage that derails weight loss, no matter how good your intentions.

The trick is to find those internal motivations to exercise, so you actually want to do it, regardless of the external outcomes. Working out should be something you do to be happy, not skinny.

Of course, we've all heard that in order to be consistent with exercise, we should find something we actually enjoy doing. What goes unsaid, however, is that when you first try something, you aren't very good at that thing, so it likely won't be enjoyable. Someone who loves yoga probably didn't love it from day one, when she was awkwardly fumbling through poses that seemed foreign and odd. So, as you try different activities, I recommend focusing on internal benefits like these:

1. Exercise makes you a happier person. This is because our bodies go through a hormonal change when we pump up our heart rate. We burn cortisol, the stress hormone, and release endorphins, the happy hormones.

2. Exercise makes you smarter. Research suggests people who are fit may have higher IQs. Even sedentary folks show a boost in brain performance after an exercise session, and people do better on some aspects of critical thinking immediately after working out.

3. Exercise boosts confidence. "Feeling fat" is commonplace in our society, and it's also destructive—it hurts body image, decreases self-esteem, and can even provoke further weight gain. Research indicates exercise can help boost self-confidence, helping us feel more comfortable in our own skin. Exercise can mean the difference between "feeling fat" and "feeling curvy"—which would you rather feel?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.