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The Science of Working Out

Felicia Miller-Stehr gets up at 7 a.m. four days a week to work out at the gym for an hour.

“Working out is my ‘me’ time,” says the New York City-based television producer and mom of two. “It's the only time of day that I can de-stress and spend an hour not thinking about my responsibilities with my job, kids, husband, friends and family. I tell myself that I’ll feel better, be able to eat more without guilt and be able to face the pressures of the day without feeling sorry for myself for 'having no time for me.’”

There are plenty of others like Miller-Stehr for whom exercise is an essential part of their lives. However, seemingly enough, there are even more of us who would like to do what she does—except when the alarm clock goes off and it’s still dark outside, or it’s cold or raining or when we can’t bear to lift our head off the pillow.

A little prep work can go a long way toward making morning workouts happen.

According to Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, a little prep work can go a long way toward making morning workouts happen, as smaller, achievable objectives will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed.

“Set out your workout clothes and sneakers next to your bed before you go to sleep so that when you wake up you can easily get up and get changed quickly,” Matthews says “It’s also helpful to identify what small snack you will eat before your workout.”

Aiming for seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night with an established bedtime and wake-up time will help your body develop a routine. And a change in mindset is also key.

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“Pump yourself up by focusing on what you will achieve by being physically active and how it will make you feel for the rest of the day, as opposed to telling yourself ‘It’s too hard to get up in the morning’ or ‘I wish I could just sleep a little longer,’" Matthews suggests.

Three-time Olympic snowboarder and bronze medal winner Chris Klug says the key to getting up in the morning for him is how good working out early makes him feel for the rest of the day, because at the end of the day going to the gym is more difficult.

“I get that it’s hard to start up again when you’re waking up muscles to activities that you haven’t done in months or even years,” he says. “But it can also be tricky any time of day for anyone at any level. For me, I wake up, eat breakfast, digest and do a nice warm-up before working out, all of which helps clear my head and start my day.”

Matthews says that procrastinators put important things off until “later” or “tomorrow” for reasons such as “feeling overwhelmed, poor time management and organization skills, fear of failure, and lack of motivation.” Procrastinators essentially talk themselves into doing nothing by magnifying the tasks at hand—such as exercising—until it seems too impossible to even try.

“They inaccurately believe they must spend hours and hours working at the task, instead of understanding that it can be broken up into manageable pieces,” Matthews says.

Procrastinators are perfectly capable of getting out of bed in the morning.

Gregory Chertok, a sports psychology consultant, agrees that procrastinators are perfectly capable of getting out of bed in the morning, but that the change in mindset won’t be immediate.

“Any action over time and with practice will become routinized,” he says. “The brain’s neural connections become stronger and thicker in response to repetitive action—good or bad.”

The longer someone goes without getting up to work out, the harder it becomes. Chertok advises those with less-than-stellar track records of morning workouts not to expect it to become dramatically easy to wake up early to exercise after a day or a week of doing it. But the good news is that human brains are malleable and can be changed at any time.

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“There’s a structural component when it comes to behavior,” says Chertok. “Even if you’ve been procrastinating for years, you can build up the ability to change.”

In fact, he says willpower is like a muscle. If you only have a finite amount, chances are it will get depleted quickly. But the more you use it, the more you’ll develop and the stronger it will become.

Novice or lapsed exercisers often expect dramatic results quickly, but with impatience comes unrealistic expectations that can lead to lost motivation.

“Human beings don’t go from not considering change to maintaining change overnight,” says Chertok. “Appreciating the slow-moving nature of your own change patterns will help you give yourself a break while you’re getting up and moving.

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