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The Science Behind Motivation: Explaining Britain's Bad Romance With Healthy Habits

02/02/2017 11:40 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 11:40 GMT

"Every January we see our gyms packed with members looking to get fit and healthy, but by February, the average person is already working out 10% less frequently." Says Lee Matthews, Fitness Director at Fitness First.

"So we asked the general public about their habits and found that despite good intentions, more than a tenth of us (13%) will have given up on our New Year's resolutions just two weeks in!

"This is why, in an industry first, we've joined forces with Evolutionary Anthropologist and Relationship Scientist, Dr Anna Machin, to help Britons understand why many of us struggle to stay on the exercise wagon. It's all part of our commitment to help people stick to their resolutions and achieve their goals!

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Dr Anna Machin sets out the evolutionary challenge; "Our love of fatty, sugary foods today originates from a time when we needed high calorie fuel to support our never-ending and energetic hunt for sustenance.

"Craving these things is an evolutionary hangover which ensured survival in yesteryear. However, we no longer have the highly physical demands of finding food to burn all those calories.

"The advancement of technology means that we can order a three course meal from our sofa; but despite 200,000 years of evolution, we've not developed a mechanism in our brains that motivates us to exercise for the sake of exercising.

"This is why we still eat as if we were about to hunt a mammoth, but don't balance it with adequate exercise."

Lee continues: "People feel like they're failing when they fall off the wagon and this in turn creates negative feelings towards exercise and healthy eating. Working with Anna explains the science behind this behaviour and offers tips on creating a better relationship with healthy habits so we can help new and prospective members."

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HOW Can we Build a Loving Relationship with Exercise?

1. Create chemistry: Our relationships are as fundamental to our survival as air, food and water because they lead to protection and procreation in many instances. To make sure we stay motivated to seek out new relationships and maintain old ones, our brains have evolved to produce a wonderful set of chemicals which are triggered by love and friendship.

Oxytocin encourages us to start relationships while endorphins and dopamine keep them going. All make us feel warm, content and even euphoric. The most powerful of these - beta endorphin - is also released by vigorous exercise!

Lee Matthews at Fitness First comments: "To produce beta-endorphin you need to do aerobic exercise for around thirty minutes, but the reward is a wave of feel-good chemicals. Try a high intensity interval training (HiiT) workout such as our SHRED session or the Pro-Cycling spin class.

"After a while, you will crave that feeling again and be motivated to exercise, so while the first few sessions of exercise might feel like a chore, once you've had regular hits of endorphins, you'll be keen to keep it up."

Dr Anna Machin adds, "Research by my team at Oxford University has found that if you do a vigorous activity in a group setting and in synchrony, then the endorphin hit is even bigger. Ultimately with the power of the endorphin you may become as attracted to exercise as you are to your partner."

2. Check your compatibility: Successful relationships are all about compatibility. At the basis of this are four attachment styles that are the result of both genetics and experience. None are right or wrong but we do know that some styles fit better together in the long term than others.

The goals for our relationship with exercise are the same. We need it to be long-term and comfortable. So find a form of exercise that suits who you are; your personality.

If you prefer time on your own or are an introvert, try solitary pursuits such as a session on your own in the gym, running or cycling. Whereas, if you're an extrovert with a love of music, a dance class could be your perfect match. If your attention span is short, look at introducing a HiiT class into your life or if it is long, a Pilates class could be a natural fit.

3. Keep it fresh: The most successful long-term relationships are those where the couple keep things fun and exciting. They take the time to explore new experiences together, to laugh and have fun.

The same is necessary for exercise. Keep challenging yourself and when you start to find excuses not to get physical, mix things up a bit with a new exercise experience. A recent study found that of the 25 possible factors that could ensure a person sticks to their exercise regime, one of the top five was that it should be fun! So if you're dreading your session, that activity is not right for you - time to try something new.

Lee Matthews at Fitness First says: "From a physiological perspective, doing different types of activity ensures you are working all areas of the body and improving everything from aerobic capacity, to flexibility and strength.

"We encourage our members to make full use of the range of activities available both in and out of our clubs. For example, try combining classes, Freestyle sessions and long walks over the weekend to keep things interesting and challenge your body."

Dr Anna Machin concludes, "No relationship survives without a bit of hard work, and it's when we take our eye off the ball that trouble can set in. Your relationship with exercise is no different.

"Work on creating a mind-set that elevates exercise and healthy eating as an important a part of your life. When you've neglected the gym for a few weeks give it a bit of extra attention and loving care, just as you would a partner."

For those looking to find their perfect exercise match in 2017, Fitness First is opening its clubs to non-members for free on Monday 16th January - a great opportunity to put Anna's advice into practice.

To help Britons keep their relationship with exercise fresh Fitness First (www.fitnessfirst.co.uk) is launching their '1001 ways to train' campaign in January giving inspiration on different ways to stay fit.

All pictures are the author's own.