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Why Your Fitness Mindset Matters

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Get Your Head in the Game

The key to sticking with a workout program may be strengthening the “muscle” between your ears.

You read the articles and listened to the podcasts. You bought the shoes, consulted the trainer, set the goals. But try as you might, something keeps sabotaging your best intentions to exercise regularly.

I’m too busy, you tell yourself, rattling off a list of legitimate obligations and responsibilities. Who has the time? 

Or you berate yourself: Why bother? I’ve tried getting fit before. It never sticks. You clearly lack the willpower, you convince yourself as you stand on the precipice of abandoning exercise for good.

But what if your problem wasn’t time management, your distaste for sweating, or lack of follow-through?

There’s a good chance, in fact, that all these obstacles have a single cause: your mindset.

In a culture saturated with pop psychology, the term “mindset” takes on many meanings. But ultimately, says Brian Grasso, author of Mindset Matters Most and cofounder with Carrie Campbell of the Achieve the Goals You Set coaching program, those two syllables refer to “the stories you tell yourself, about yourself.”

The study of the mind — and how it both limits us and sets us free — began thousands of years ago. “Any serious Asian martial-arts training is primarily a study of the mind,” says Jeremy Hunter, PhD, director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University. “A student learns to turn fear into focus.”

Coupled with current research on behavior change, modern mindset-shifting techniques have helped people cope with addiction, depression, anxiety, and other crippling conditions. But can they also help us conquer our fears and doubts about taking up — and staying with — regular workouts?

Absolutely.

The Phases of Change

Before discussing mindset, it’s important to understand the transtheoretical model of change (TTM), a system of behavioral modification developed by psychologists James Prochaska, PhD, John Norcross, PhD, and Carlo DiClemente, PhD. The name may be a mouthful, but its guiding principle is simple: If you’ve had trouble starting (or restarting, or re-restarting) an exercise program in the past, the first step is to figure out where your head is.

Self-help books often suggest that change is instantaneous. Overnight, they promise, you can throw out old behaviors (obsessing over social media, eating sweets) and adopt new ones (jogging, eating more -vegetables).

TTM asserts that it’s a multistage process. “The key is always to use the right strategy at the right time,” Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente explain in Changing for Good.

Their model identifies six stages of behavior change:

  • Precontemplation: You don’t recognize the need to change — and may resist it.
  • Contemplation: You understand that you need to change.
  • Preparation: You’re ready to take action and begin planning.
  • Action: You implement your plan.
  • Maintenance: You consolidate the gains you’ve made.
  • Termination: Your new behavior is habitual.

Though the process appears linear, you might skip from one phase to another and back again several times before making it to the termination phase. You may resolve to start working out, even attend a few classes, only to skip exercising for a month or more.

Many people interpret this as a failure of willpower — and perhaps further evidence that they aren’t cut out for exercise. But “falling off the wagon” is part of the model: not a relapse, but a recycle through the phases and another opportunity to learn what works for you.

Conceptual shifts like these may seem simple, or even pointless, but how you think about your behavior plays a vital role in your capacity to make change (see “Change Your Words, Change Your Mindset,”below).

“When you tell someone how to do something and it doesn’t work, they feel like they’ve failed. That implants a new story and a deeper belief that they won’t be able to do it,” says Campbell, who’s also a clinical counselor. If, however, you see setbacks as a part of the process, you’re more likely to return to, and stick with, the new program.

In other words, expect your progress to be nonlinear. Expect that you may take two steps forward and one step back.

A step back might seem like a failure, but every one is an opportunity to learn and take that next step forward. As Zen Buddhist monk and author Pema Chödrön advises, “Fail, fail again, fail better.”

TTM also suggests that people who have trouble exercising may be taking the wrong type of action at the wrong time: They draw up plans they aren’t ready to implement; they stop budgeting time for workouts before they’ve established the habit. This helps explain why so many New Year’s resolutions — more than 90 percent, by some estimates — fall by the wayside.

So, be kind to yourself as you set new fitness goals, begin to examine your own long-held truths and personal stories, and sense a mindset shift. Be patient. Stumbling is part of the process. If you feel lost or frustrated, identify the TTM phase you’re experiencing and remember that change at the intersection of body and mind is not always a smooth, linear flow forward.

Taking Inventory

Before you take action, consider your exercise mindset: Are you excited by the prospect of working out? Feeling overwhelmed? Guilty? Annoyed? Are you ready to start tomorrow — or would you rather not think about it at all?

Try writing down your feelings about working out in a quick, five-minute, stream-of-consciousness burst. This can help indicate your current phase of change.

Focused writing can also reveal what Campbell and Grasso call the “stories” that might be hindering you. You might discover, for example, that you think you’re smart but not athletic, or funny but physically hopeless. Such inner sound bites may seem innocuous, but over time they can start to feel like inescapable facts.

With practice, Campbell and Grasso say, you can change the stories you tell yourself — and, ultimately, change your life.

Like any worthwhile change, shifting your perspective on exercise takes time. “Mindset is often mistaken for getting amped up, like all those messages on social media about your ‘one shot’ and how ‘now is the time.’ But that’s not sustainable,” Grasso says. Just as a single workout won’t transform your body, he explains, a single motivational workshop or visualization session won’t change your mind. “Changing your mindset is about consistency plus simplicity.”

If you discover you’re not ready to begin exercising regularly, consider what exercise might do for you. Could it make you feel better about yourself? Give you the energy to play with your kids or the courage to speak publicly? Enable you to take more risks, spend more time in nature, pursue an activity that’s always intrigued you? Could it support you through any health issues you might be facing?

At some point, you’ll hit on a reason that fires you up. No single motivation works for everyone — which is why it’s important to search your soul until you find reasons that resonate.

Cat Thompson, founder of the coaching company Emotional Technologies, calls this getting in touch with your why. “What’s the life you envision after you’ve made your transformation?” she asks. “What does success look and feel like, and what will you do in your stronger body?”

Think beyond rational reasons like lowering your blood pressure or relieving your back pain. Though important, they aren’t usually enough to spur action. “You may have all the concrete reasons in the world to exercise,” says Thompson. “But unless you’re emotionally engaged in the process, you’ll sabotage yourself every time.”

Move deliberately through these initial steps, especially if you’ve had painful experiences with exercise in the past. Like a Zen warrior, you’re battling inner demons, laying the psychological groundwork for a life-changing breakthrough. Don’t shortchange this important stage of your personal hero’s journey.

The more you can frame exercise as a positive, active step toward greater fulfillment (more confidence and enjoyment) rather than a way to avoid a negative outcome (illness, weight gain), the more likely you are to succeed.

Ready, Set, Plan

At some point, you’ll need to specify your intentions, making plans for how you’ll integrate exercise into your life and clarifying your goals. Many people aim too high, setting unrealistic expectations (I’ll go to the gym six days a week!) and unattainable goals (I’ll lose 20 pounds before the end of the month!). But this approach seldom works, and it can lead to feelings of hopelessness.

“It’s easy to get intimidated or overwhelmed,” says Campbell. If you’ve had success setting goals in other areas of your life — such as work or finances — feel free to set some around exercise and fitness, too. But if not, don’t: “Better that than falling short of a big goal and reinforcing an old, negative story,” she says.

For now, stick with shorter-term goals involving habits you’re trying to establish (I want to get to the gym twice a week for a month) rather than outcomes you’re trying to achieve (I want to bench press 300 pounds). That way, each workout becomes a victory.

Many adults, perhaps remembering coaches who had punished them with laps or pushups, see exercise as a form of penance. We may assume the drill-sergeant role ourselves, undertaking demanding exercise routines and Spartan diets as a way of disciplining ourselves for what we consider slip-ups or bad behavior.

This is not an effective — or sustainable — strategy. “Humans are pleasure-driven creatures,” says Thompson. “Think back to a physical activity you enjoyed as a child. Was it hiking? Cycling? Climbing trees?” You might be able to base your entire fitness routine on that one, enjoyable activity. If not, she advises, “include at least some activities you enjoy.”

Many of these choices come down to personal preference, so it’s essential to stay flexible as you plan your approach. Consider all your options: Do you enjoy working out after work? At night? On weekends? Weekdays?  “If you hate getting up early,” says Thompson, “your plan to get up five days a week at 6 a.m. won’t last long.”

The goal is to craft a strategy that creates new, positive associations with exercise and overrides older, negative ones. In essence, you’re rewriting your exercise story.

Jumping In

Armed with a new outlook on fitness, and a plan designed to maximize your enjoyment, you’re ready to dive in. As you head to the gym, pool, trail, or park, go easy on yourself.

An exercise program has lots of moving parts, and you may need to change your diet or sleep habits. Some days you’ll forget your shoes or miss the early class; your enthusiasm for working out may wax and wane as your body adjusts to your new routine. When setbacks happen, don’t despair. Simply steer yourself gently back to your workouts.

If your efforts to get started stall repeatedly, adjust your strategy so it’s more in keeping with your preferences. “Resistance often crops up because you’re not being flexible enough,” says Thompson. Maybe cycling isn’t all you thought it would be. Maybe your workout buddy is holding you back. Change the elements of the plan that aren’t working and stick with the ones that are. “There’s a lot of power in letting things happen instead of making them happen,” she explains.

Hunter teaches a course for industry leaders at the Executive Mind Leadership Institute on focusing the mind during stressful periods. The key strategy? “The students observe themselves in stressful situations,” he says. They quickly notice harmful, intrusive thoughts, which drive destructive, negative behavior. Once aware of these thoughts, they learn to step away from them and take a new direction to make better decisions.

So, notice what stories run through your head during your workouts and write them down. How do these thoughts translate into actions and results? Documenting these things can help you track how you respond to your new program over time.

Through a combination of nudging the script a little (shifting your inner monologue from I’ll never get through this to This is hard, but I can do it) and altering your behavior (using a lighter weight, taking an easier class, exercising at lunchtime instead of in the morning), you will find an approach that’s challenging, rewarding, and sustainable in just the right combination.

Staying The Course

Establishing a beneficial habit is a little like tending a garden: lots of work early on, and less as you progress — but never no work at all. Unlike dropping a bad habit, “exercise requires modifying your behavior until it becomes such a significant part of your life that you miss it when you can’t do it,” says DiClemente. The trick, he notes, is to keep the number of pros high and the cons low.

Many of the pros will quickly become obvious. After just a few weeks of working out regularly, maybe you’ll notice more vitality, sharper focus, and increased muscle mass accompanied by less stress, body fat, anxiety, and depression. All of this will motivate you to keep it up.

But some days, says Thompson, life will get in the way. The key is to take the long view. “It’s like the stock market: One day might be great, the next terrible. Instead of worrying about day-to-day fluctuations, think of your exercise program as an investment for five or 10 years in the future.”

Journaling remains a valuable tool during this phase, she notes. On days when you might get discouraged, “it gives you tangible evidence of your accomplishments.”

Finally, she says, build variety into your program to stave off boredom, perhaps changing the focus of your workouts with the seasons. You might swim in the summer, lift weights in the fall, ski in the winter, and hike in the spring. This strategy helps prevent repetitive-use injury, respects your body’s need for change, and parallels the behavioral patterns of humans through history.

As you reach higher levels of fitness, minigoals — perhaps completing a 5K or competing in a mud run — can add structure to your workouts and provide additional short-term motivation to stick with your program.

Despite all the hardcore “no pain, no gain” cheerleading that surrounds exercise, it’s most important to simply stay flexible and go easy on yourself as you move forward. Celebrate the victories, let yourself off the hook for the missteps, and keep progressing, one step at a time.

“Too often we fall for the promise of an easy fix,” says Thompson. “Like four weeks to six-pack abs. Forget that. Look at your actions over time. Exercise is part of a wellness plan — and that’s a plan that you work forever.”

This originally appeared as “Get Your Head in the Game” in the November 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

, CSCS, is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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