Why Self-Affirmation Helps You Exercise

Here’s a little example of self-affirmation for you: “I’m a good guy, and people love and depend on me; I should keep healthy so I can be there for them.” Sounds a little mushy—or a lot. Well, yeah—but a guy saying that to himself every day is more likely to put on his running shoes and break a sweat than the guy who doesn’t.

A study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Science has found that self-affirmation activates a key area of the brain related to self-relevance. Researchers put a group of sedentary (read: non-exercising) adults through an fMRI machine, examining the ventromedial prefontal cortex (which helps process self-relevance). Half were given the sort of advice that you might hear from the doctor, e.g., “You know, people who are more active live longer.” The other half were first led through a self-affirmation exercise, then given the same advice.

Turns out, those who did the self-affirmation exercise had more activity than those who didn’t, suggesting that the self-affirming group took the advice and thought about it in terms of their own life (“Man, they’re right; I could be living longer if I start jogging a couple times a week!”), whereas those who didn’t self-affirm weren’t as likely to apply the advice to their own lives (“Yeah, running makes you live longer? Duh!”).

We’d always written off all that self-affirmation stuff as sort of vaguely new-age nonsense; turns out, we just weren’t seeing the self-relevance of it all.


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