Making Exercise Meaningful

By: Conor Artman and Aline Holzwarth 

It’s no secret that we would all be better off if we exercised a bit more. And yet, we struggle to exercise for many reasons: some cite the high opportunity cost of the time spent exercising, others say they don’t have the energy, and even more simply don’t enjoy it.

But rather than dwelling on excuses, we wondered how we could encourage people to exercise more, and help them savor exercise rather than dread it.

To answer this question, Aline Holzwarth and Conor Artman teamed up with the brains behind The Fabulous app, alumni of our Startup Lab and Google Play Editor’s Choice and Awards Finalist for Most Innovative and Best Design. The Fabulous helps users design healthy daily rituals through personalized in-app journeys to fit a variety of goals —from exercising more to eating better, from sleeping well to feeling more energetic. Some users have even referred to The Fabulous as “a happiness designer.”

We were interested in three research questions: Does the addition of a ritual help? Does the type of ritual matter? And does it matter whether people are asked to choose their own exercise ritual, or are simply told what to do?

First, we asked a random subset of 800 Fabulous users to add a ritual to their exercise routine, and randomly assigned them to one of two conditions — either the Choice condition, where they were given the choice between one of four exercise rituals, or the No Choice condition, where they were randomly assigned to one of the same four rituals.

exercise routine rituals

All rituals began with the following two steps:

Remind yourself why it is important to you, personally, to exercise.

Say this to yourself out loud: “I’m getting fit. I’m getting healthy. I’m getting happy.”

After these two steps, it gets interesting. Depending on which ritual users were assigned to, or which ritual they chose (for the half of participants who were given a choice), they were asked to perform a few more steps.

In the Choice condition, users saw all four rituals and could pick which one that they’d like to perform (as shown here).

rituals for exercise


Each corresponding ritual included the following instructions:

Those in the No Choice condition were simply given one of these four rituals (Mindful, Stretch, Counting, or Tap In) and asked to perform the ritual before each time that they exercised

When people finished exercising, they were asked to rate their exercise experience.

feeling after exercise

And at the end of each week, they were asked to report how often they actually performed the ritual before exercising, as well as how often they exercised, how much they enjoyed performing the ritual, and how much they enjoyed the exercise.

rituals before exercise

As for those three research questions..

  1. Does the addition of a ritual help?

Indeed! Across all rituals, participants reported on average that the ritual both made them exercise more, and made them want to exercise more.

  1. Does the type of ritual matter?

Users preferred the condition where they designed their own ritual (the “Tap In” condition) in virtually every respect. This included self-reported good feelings, ritual and exercise frequency, ritual and exercise enjoyment, and the desire to use the ritual for the next workout.

  1. And does it matter whether people are asked to choose their own exercise ritual, or are simply told what to do?

When users were given the choice of which ritual they wanted to add to their exercise routine, no matter which ritual they chose, they enjoyed exercising more. They also reported a greater desire to perform the ritual, had higher exercise frequency, enjoyed the ritual more, and were more likely to exercise.

In summary, rituals can be a promising means of encouraging exercise behavior, and this effect appears to be driven by various forms of choice. When users were given the ability to choose a ritual, and when they had full control over the design of their ritual, they experienced the most favorable results. Given the classic literature by Ellen Langer on the illusion of choice, where (as just one example) participants who were allowed to choose a lottery ticket became overly attached to their ticket (and demanded more to resell it, compared to participants who were given no choice in their ticket),[1] it is not surprising to find a positive effect of choice. Interestingly, despite the strength of such personalization, only 9% of users in the Choice condition chose the “Tap In” ritual where they could design their own ritual. On the other hand, the Mindful and Stretch rituals, while far more popular (chosen by 38% and 46% of users in the Choice condition, respectively), were less effective.

While previous research has suggested that rituals can imbue ordinary tasks with deeper meaning, help deal with monetary losses, and even facilitate grieving, our experiment suggests that how the ritual is constructed can change the ritual’s effects.[2,3] Interestingly, in our experiment the only positive effect we observed was when people could choose to personalize how their ritual works, and the more constraint we put on individuals’ exercise rituals, the worse they stuck to them. Taken together, it may be the case that personalizing rituals are as important as incorporating them as a regular action in order to make rituals meaningful and effective for dealing with both psychological and physical pain. So, the next time that you want to motivate yourself to go for a run or pick up the weights, try making up your own ritual that you perform every time you begin.

[1] Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32(2), 311.

[2] Vohs, Kathleen D., Yajin Wang, Francesca Gino, and Michael I. Norton. “Rituals enhance consumption.” Psychological Science 24, no. 9 (2013): 1714-1721.

[3] Norton, Michael I., and Francesca Gino. “Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General143, no. 1 (2014): 266.