A New Year’s Resolution for You: Exercise for Pleasure and Enjoyment

Many people try improving their health, wealth, and happiness around the New Year. Fewer than 10%, however, feel successful in achieving their resolutions. More than 25% of people do not maintain their resolutions for more than one week, according to the Statistic Brain. This post will help you avoid becoming such a statistic.

how to Exercise for Pleasure and Enjoyment

(Image Credit: Victor Freitas)

The benefits of regular exercise are well-established. People who exercise regularly are at less risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, osteoporosis, and many other diseases.

Research Overview

Despite widespread awareness of at least some of these benefits, about 50% of adults drop out of exercise programs after six months. In an article published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers highlighted that 63% of new members of a fitness center in Brazil stopped attending within three months.

 In a 2015 review of 24 studies, Ryan E. Rhodes and Andrew Kates found that the pleasure we feel during exercise is related to exercise behavior. Interestingly, the pleasure that we feel after exercising does not seem to be related to exercise behavior. A comprehensive review in 2011 led by Panteleimon Ekkekakis of Iowa State University concluded that the pleasure experienced during exercise is reduced at higher intensities, while most people experience pleasure at lower intensities. Michelle L. Segar and Caroline R. Richardson suggest the pleasure experienced during activity should be emphasized. This means focusing on immediate rewards (like experiencing pleasure) rather than long-term rewards (like increased health and reduced risk of disease).


The above research demonstrates why we need to rethink our approach to exercise.

  1. When you exercise, prioritize pleasure and enjoyment. Whether you’re running, swimming, cycling, lifting weights, or participating in group-exercise classes, try to ensure that it makes you feel good during exercise. You will be more likely to continue.
  2. Although there are some exceptions, we can expect most people to feel pleasant at lower intensities. These lower intensities may be less effective than higher intensities, but the best exercise is the exercise you do regularly. If lowering the intensity makes you feel better, it may help you maintain your active lifestyle.
  3. Rather than exercising for better overall health or for weight loss, try to exercise for something that is more immediately rewarding for you. Think about exercise as an opportunity to take a break from your obligations, to indulge in audio content that you are excited to hear (such as a podcast or an audiobook), to meet with an exercise buddy, or to feel more pleasure and energy.

Beginning a new exercise program and incorporating physical activity into your everyday lifestyle can seem daunting. People typically avoid unpleasant and unrewarding activities during leisure times and pursue pleasant and rewarding activities. Physical activity and exercise should not be thought of as punishment. If you exercise for pleasure and enjoyment, the evidence suggests that you’ll be more likely to continue.

I sincerely hope that the advice in this post helps you become a happier and healthier. Happy New Year!


Zachary Zenko is a postdoctoral associate at The Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier. Zack’s research focuses on promoting physical activity and exercise behavior. You can follow him on Twitter @zackzenko or you can e-mail him at zachary.zenko@duke.edu.



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Ekkekakis, P., Parfitt, G., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2011). The pleasure and displeasure people feel when they exercise at different intensities: Decennial update and progress towards a tripartite rationale for exercise intensity prescription. Sports Medicine, 41, 641-671.

Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2014). Holding The Hunger Games hostage at the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling. Management Science, 60, 283-299.

Rhodes, R. E., & Kates, A. (2015). Can the affective response to exercise predict future motives and physical activity behavior? A systematic review of published evidence. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 49, 715-731.

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Segar, M. L., & Richardson, C. R. (2014). Prescribing pleasure and meaning: Cultivating walking motivation and maintenance. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 47, 838-841.

Sperandei, S., Vieira, M. C., & Reis, A. C. (2016). Adherence to physical activity in an unsupervised setting: Explanatory variables for high attrition rates among fitness center members. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 19, 916-920.

Statistic Brain. (2017). New Years Resolution Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/