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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

Why it’s critical to know & apply the law of least effort to getting fit

Think of getting fit and you think effort. “You only get out what you put in” is a slogan that typifies the usual belief.

Effort’s required, there’s no doubt about it. However, what if you could do better by admitting you’re naturally inclined to be lazy?

It may be best just to account for our tendency to take the easy option.

It’s not admitting defeat but acknowledging the way we’re wired. It’ll actually improve your chance of getting and staying fit.

The law of least effort

It’s best described by Nobel Prize winner and author of the best seller, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman: ”A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” This means we shy away from solving complicated problems. We also avoid choosing between a wide range of options because of the overwhelm it creates. What’s more, we’ve limited energy reserves for difficult thinking.

Of course we rarely choose to expend more physical energy than necessary either. Our love of labour-saving devices shows that.

Judge sitting in court of law
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

What it means for exercise

Exercise is effortful by nature.

It’s tough to do regularly, especially with the demands of work and family life.

It’s no wonder so many struggle to turn fitness into habit, and that people have more failed attempts than successful ones.

You don’t have to read ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow” (although it’s a great book) to also know when tired you’re more averse to mental and physical effort. This adds further challenge to getting fit.

The problem typically plays out like this:

1. You intend to exercise after work. 2. At the end of the day you’ve exhausted a ton of mental energy. Plus, you’re worn out by the demands of family life. 3. With mental and physical energy diminished the idea of exercising is too much. You instead find yourself in front of the TV with drink in hand. The law of least effort wins out!

The other little-known reason that makes getting fit a battle

Most people work, study or raise kids for the bulk of their waking hours. We allocate the hours left to leisure. When we add exercise, it competes with more pleasurable activities for a place in precious leisure time.

However, if you’re not in the habit of exercising you’ll hardly consider it a liberating choice. Even though you are in fact choosing it. (Not only are we lazy thinkers, we don’t think as rationally as we believe!).

If you think fitness, what comes to mind is structure and discomfort. Again, not helpful for feeling a sense of pleasure or freedom.

When exercise isn’t part of your regular routine it’ll feel like yet another thing you have to do.

There’s an alternative though that offers loads of freedom of choice- the TV remote control! The lack of effort cancels out any overwhelm from all the channel options.

It’s easy to see why people in U.K. & U.S watch on average more than 2 hours of TV a day. In comparison, they average only 10 minutes of cardio exercise daily.

Ironically, people report it’s not very satisfying to watch TV. While there’s a mountain of evidence showing exercise offers major short and long term benefits. However, we continue to take the option that’s not particularly satisfying, or good for us.

Not only do we resist effort, we resent it encroaching on leisure time. No wonder getting and staying fit is such a battle.

Why will power is not the answer

Will power is useful. However, it’s not that effective with the ‘Laziness built deep into our nature’ that Kahneman describes. You may be able to apply it every now and again, but you can’t rely on it all the time. Reflect honestly on your past and present, I’ll bet you don’t use it all that much. Yet there’s a tendency to overestimate how much you’ll use it in the future.

There is something more important and influential than will power. It doesn’t lie within you but all around you- your environment.

It’s what’s within arm’s reach, what you can see. It’s the people around you and how they behave.

Your environment and the law of least effort are strongly connected. It’s pretty simple really. Imagine you’re trying to lose weight by eating healthy. Yet you can easily access junk food in your pantry or fridge. Clearly you’re much more likely to give in to temptation than if getting sweet snacks takes a 5 minute drive to the shops.

Similarly, if you live and work in areas where there’s nice walking tracks, gym’s and lots of people exercising it makes exercise easier and more likely.

Big companies design environments with the law of least effort firmly in mind. Take a supermarket for example. You’ll easily see and access the products they really want you to buy. Store layout and positioning of products is extremely strategic.

It works. Most of us don’t even realise.

Exercise more by making it less effortful

Just as business’s make it easy for you to buy, there are ways of making it easier to start workouts, and do them often. Here’s some ideas…..

* If exercising at days end do it immediately after work

Once that cool drink or TV remote is in hand, you’ve likely switched to leisure mode. The odds of taking on effortful tasks’ plummets.

While you’re in action mode roll with it. Go straight to the gym near work or on your way home. Don’t let any complication or distraction come up. Just do it.

Using exercise as transport to or from is work is another option. It removes steps and potential complication.

Exercising during lunch or study breaks can be a good strategy as well. You won’t consider it such an intrusion into leisure time. Plus, it’ll lift focus and productivity for hours afterwards.

* Keep travel and preparation time brief.

American’s cite distance to the gym as a major reason for not exercising. When you reduce travel time to wherever you exercise, you reduce effort.

Consider what equipment and clothing you need to set up or put on. Is it an elaborate process or quick and easy?

30 minutes of prep or travel for a 30-minute workout is impractical and will quickly prove tiring.

* Make workouts simple

Americans also report that getting into an exercise routine is overwhelming. You can understand, given the sheer number of workouts and exercises being promoted by experts and influencers. It’s mind-boggling.

It’s tricky because the body consists of hundreds of muscles. The body moves in many different planes as well. You can justify doing 20 or more different exercises per workout to make it comprehensive.

Complexity is still the enemy though. The rest of your life is probably complex enough.

The 3 most popular forms of exercise are walking, running and cycling. Walking tops the list and it’s no coincidence it’s the simplest.

I must admit the typical personal training session I put a client through is complex. There’s lots of different exercises and some are technical. My view is the client is paying for personal service, which means specifics and detail.

Importantly though probability of overwhelm is way lower because I’m telling them exactly what to do. The client doesn’t have to make choices or think much. It’s amazing just how little some clients remember about routines and exercises they’ve done many times before!

I’ve no expectation of clients training alone with the same level of complexity. That just doesn’t happen. Instead, I encourage them to walk, run or cycle, to keep it simple. That’ll more likely happen, and those exercises compliment the more complex sessions well.

Without the luxury of a personal trainer err on the basic side first. You can always add complexity later.

* Have a plan or a program

Know what you’re going to do before you start exercise sessions. Making it up as you go will mean wasting time and adding unnecessary decisions. It’ll chew up yet more mental energy.

You’ll slash mental strain by having a program mapped out. Even if it’s detailed, it’ll be as easy to follow as Google maps directions. You simply follow the steps, without need for decision making.

* Have a routine

Do a bootcamp class each Wednesday at 6pm often enough and you won’t need to diarise it. You’ll barely have to think about it.

Same applies if you and a friend walk around the park at 8am every Sunday. Once it’s routine it’ll feel strange if you miss it.

When you make exercising routine it almost becomes systemised or automated. It’s what so many successful business’s do, they know it reduces mistakes and increases efficiency.

You’ll save a deceptive amount of mental effort (& time) taken to organise weekly workouts by having a routine.

Notice how people stick with a routine even when aware of better, cheaper, healthier or more enjoyable options? It’s mainly because of the effort needed to change.

It’s worth doing your upmost to establish routines. If you can keep time, day and venue the same, your lazy brain will love it.

Just get real

Hopefully you can now see how the Law of Least Effort matters so much with making and maintaining the habit of exercise.

Another way of looking at it is that it’s just getting real.

Ever been sceptical about a friend’s grand plan for some amazing change?

Often, the scepticism isn’t because you’re unsupportive but because you know them well. You’re well aware of their strengths, weaknesses and schedules. You can tell the plan’s going to take an awful lot more effort than they realise, or have historically put in.

You just know it’s not realistic.

Rather than thinking you’ll suddenly have new levels of lasting motivation and willpower, be real about your own plans. Try taking an objective perspective. What would someone who knows you well think of your plans?

How much difficulty, complexity and time will it really take to do what you intend?

Could you make it easier, simpler and quicker?

Perhaps it’s wiser to take a different approach? Go after another goal or at least follow a different (& easier) path?

If you stay aware of the law of least effort it’ll increase your chances of sticking with regular exercise. It’s that consistency and frequency that’s the foundation for great results.

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