legs of a man running on pavementThink of a time you had a positive experience with exercise. Does it make you want to get up and work out? Research from the University of New Hampshire found that just thinking about past experience with exercise can motivate people to exercise later on. The findings may influence how people motivate themselves in regards to their personal health and fitness, but they also offer an interesting take on the practical applications of memory.

The researchers asked over 200 students to complete a questionnaire that was apparently about college activity choices. The students in the experimental group were asked to recall either a positive or a negative memory that could motivate them to exercise. After the questionnaire, all of the students reported how much exercise they did for the next several days.

The students who were asked to recall a positive exercise-related memory reported significantly higher levels of exercise activity than the control group after the initial survey, even when the researchers controlled for other factors. The students who were asked to recall a negative memory also reported an increase in exercise activity. These students exercised more than the students in the control group, but not as much as those who had recalled positive memories.

What makes memory such a powerful motivational tool? The research team posits that positive memories “promote positive feelings” about exercise and themselves. This could have boosted a student’s motivation to exercise. Negative memories caused the students to think about themselves and increased their motivation, albeit in a different way.

“These results provide the first experimental evidence that autobiographical memory activation can be an effective tool in motivating individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles,” state co-authors Mathew Biondolillo and David Pillemer.

This research is published in the journal Memory.

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