As renowned sports-medicine physician Dr. Jordan D. Metzl wrote for Time in its special edition The Science of Exercise, “exercise is a miracle drug… take it often, and you’ll live a longer, healthier life. Your medical costs will be lower, you’ll sleep better at night, and your workdays will be more productive. Your mood will improve and your risk of developing almost any chronic disease will drop. It works for just about everyone who takes it, young or old, and if done correctly, it has few or no negative side effects. Every dose is 100% effective – even small ones. It’s the most powerful, readily available drug in the world. And it’s free.” As someone who is a firm believer in all the above, I frequently tout a similar message to all who will listen. Countless studies and personal anecdotes demonstrate the efficacy of exercise not only physiologically, but also on our disposition and happiness, our mental strength and grit, and even our willpower. Exercise is a foundational habit, meaning that establishing it as a part of our regular routine helps to strengthen our self-command and resolve to make or break other habits and achieve even seemingly unrelated goals and resolutions.
Since we are better able to maintain our motivation for those things we resolve to start or to stop doing when we can “pause-and-plan,” our heart rate variability is an excellent predictor of our ability to practice self-control. Heart rate variability is a particularly strong indicator of overall health and general fitness since it outlines our ability to manage intense intervals of physiological arousal as well as rest and relaxation periods effectively. In terms of building healthy habits, those things which increase this variability seem to aid us when it comes to willpower. Therefore, reducing stress and increasing our health overall will only serve to strengthen our ability to stick with our goals in the face of temptation. Which is why exercise is a foundational habit, with benefits far beyond the sum of its parts.
In a quite famous study conducted by Oaten and Cheng at Macquarie University in Sydney, research participants (who were not in the habit of exercising at the start of the experiment) were given free gym memberships and prescribed one workout a week for the first month and three per week for the second. Throughout the study, the subjects’ self-control, perseverance, and ability to resist temptations was measured and amazingly, after only two months of building a habit of regular exercise, EVERY SINGLE participant increased his or her willpower. The study showed that exercise is a foundational habit since no other changes were required of participants and yet the subjects were able to better ignore distractions, procrastinate less, better modulate their emotions, and be more punctual. Many stopped or reduced their smoking, alcohol and caffeine intake, improved their diet, saved more money, and spend more time studying as opposed to watching TV.
In my own life, exercise is a foundational habit which I am quite serious about. It’s something that I prioritize because I know the spillover effect that it has on everything else I have to do or want to do and it almost never fails to improve my mood. While I am, of course, partial to barre personally, the overwhelming evidence is that any type of consistent exercise can have a positive impact. My philosophy has been, and continues to be, that it is critical for you to find a workout that works for you. There are so many different ways to move and be active that I firmly believe there is something for everyone out there. I was definitely in a rut prior to finding barre, inconsistently exercising here and there because I thought it was something that I should do, not something that I wanted to do. Now it’s been almost five years of barre almost everyday and I’m still absolutely obsessed. And when I think about all I’ve accomplished, the challenges I’ve taken on, and how much I’ve grown over those past five years I would very seriously attribute a lot of it to finding barre. Exercise is a foundational habit and all that pulsing, shaking, and tucking at the barre has built not only stronger and leaner muscles, but also greater willpower and mental strength for everything else I set my mind to.