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Change Your Mind, Change Your Body

5 ways to re-think exercise and achieve your fitness goals

When it comes to getting fit, you're willing to change, right?

Maybe you're up for joining a nearby gym, shelling out for a new pair of terrific running shoes or downloading an app on your smartphone so you can track the calories you burn up. 

But here's one thing people don’t think about changing when it comes to exercise: their mind.

Yet that may be the shift that makes all the difference.

"It doesn't matter how much you spend on a gym or how good your personal trainer is, it's really all about your behavior. And that's your mind over your body," says Jennifer Huberty, an associate professor at Arizona State University in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.

For the past decade, Huberty has run the fee-based FitMinded behavior-change program, an online book club for midlife women. Participants read and talk through materials that spur them to understand what's holding them back from regular physical activity.

(MORE: Change Your Mind to Change Your Weight)

Common themes Huberty hears are:

  • I don't like exercise
  • I don't have time
  • I have no motivation
  • I don't have the money for a trainer/fancy gym/ classes

Sound familiar?

Practice New Thought Patterns

For most of us, these “I don’t” statements become patterns of thinking that can be tough to leave behind. And sadly, when our thoughts about being active center on why we don't want to and can't, actually getting physical becomes more difficult.

Ryan Rhodes, a professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, calls the pattern of knowing you should exercise but then not doing it the "intention-behavior gap."

How to bridge that gap? Forget about intentions. Give a few minutes of serious thought to what's in your way. By identifying obstacles, Huberty says, it's possible to come up with specific, doable ways to overcome them, one by one.

"You have to have strategies you can maintain on an everyday basis," she says. "It doesn't just happen overnight; it's practicing and practicing and practicing."

The really interesting thing, though, is that this mental approach to physical activity (FitMinded meetings don't include workouts and the women mostly talk about each week's assigned book) seems to have lasting results. FitMinded participants who identify ways to overcome obstacles are likelier to do three things: start being physically active (often for the first time in years), continue exercising and like physical activity more.

Rhodes and Huberty offer five science-based ways to help shift your thinking about physical activity so you can stick with it and enjoy it more (even if you never actually love it):
1. Make it daily. "One of the first things is to make physical activity part of your schedule to do every day, like eating breakfast," says Huberty. "Don't let anyone take it away from you." And she means it when she says you should be doing something every single day.

"The day of rest on many exercise schedules is for people who are training for an event, like a marathoner,"Huberty explains. "The average person should be doing something every day. But it's how you define it; it doesn't have to be high-intensity training — it can be a walk in the park or gardening. Daily exercise sounds worse than it is."

(MORE: Find Your Motivation to Maintain an Exercise Program)
2. Make it brief. "Start with short bouts," recommends Rhodes. "That keeps it a more positive experience. You don't have to go from zero to hero; that's the nice thing about physical activity — there's tons of time to get better."

Centers for Disease Control guidelines for physical activity stress that 10-minute bouts of activity throughout the day are absolutely fine. "Can you have a walking break instead of a coffee break?" Rhodes suggests. "It's often a small start. The key is to make it part of your life and not something you're adding on to your life." Most of us don't need a to-do list that's even longer.
3. Make a Plan B. Life has a way of upending the best-laid plans. Which means that even if you schedule exercise into your life, sometimes, of course, you'll need to adjust. And by "adjust" we don't mean "scrap your workouts altogether" when, say, your tennis buddy has to work late or your husband is out of town for the week.

"Ask yourself, if your workout partner stops exercising, who else are you going to get to go with you?" says Huberty. "It's being accountable to yourself and constantly figuring out how to make it happen." One of the biggest reasons for skipping a workout is feeling tired, so prioritizing sleep is essential. It's fine to do a low-key session on the days you're extra-fatigued.
4. Make it fun. Even if you believe you've never found anything about physical activity remotely enjoyable, your childhood or teenage self almost certainly did. Consider the possibility that liking exercise is somewhere inside of you, even if it's buried deep.

"The cognitive shift with exercise is similar to that with diet," says Rhodes. "You have to have a diet that you find flavorful and you can prepare, or it's tough to stick to it. Physical activity is like that. You have to shift your thinking to value the day in/day out part of it."

The other benefit of choosing something fun is that it's also likely to be something you're good at, which builds self-confidence — a key factor in enjoying exercise.
5. Make it motivating. What gets someone else moving simply may not work for you, notes Huberty. "Some people will buy themselves a song on iTunes after they've done a good job, but if that's not motivating to you that's not what you should be doing," she says. "I'm motivated by having peace and quiet at home and working out by myself. I know there's no way to do that except by getting up at 4:45 a.m., which I do every morning."

So whether it's a new download, a soak in the tub, a small fro-yo or something else, you have to find the rewards that actually work for you or the things that get you going or keep you moving longer.

If nothing else is working — and some days nothing will (even athletes have days when the couch beckons) — you'll simply have to decide to see moving your body as something other than the worst thing in the world.

"Ask yourself how you're going to maintain this behavior that's not our favorite thing to do," says Huberty. "It's a thought process and also how you perceive it. So you can choose to have a negative perception or you can choose to look at it from a positive point of view."
Lorie A. Parch is a long-time health and fitness journalist and the founder of ih8exercise.com, a new site to help people who hate exercise learn safe, quick workouts and like physical activity more.


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