The Secret to Exercise – it's All in the Mind!

by DavalosMcCormack on January 20, 2009

It’s always struck me as ironic that the biggest barrier to physical activity is mental activity. If you don’t get your mind on board then you’ll never manage to stick with any kind of exercise program.

So when I saw a new study from Canada basically saying the same thing I wondered “what’s new?”. Well, quite a lot actually.

The study, in the journal BMC Public Health, found that people who have a desire to exercise and who are confident that they can are more likely to start, and more importantly, to stick with a regular exercise program than people who have neither desire nor confidence.

On first glance that sounds kind of obvious; you are more likely to exercise if you want to! But what’s interesting is how big a role confidence plays in shaping your decision to be more active and your determination to follow through on it.

In the study the researchers write that people who are more confident in their ability to exercise “will perceive fewer barriers to, or be less influenced by them, and will be more likely to enjoy” exercising.

Too often we start an exercise program by exercising, jumping straight into action. Then, after a few weeks or months, as we start to run into barriers or stop going to the gym, we try to find ways to regain our motivation. But by then our enthusiasm is waning, we’re allowing obstacles to crop up and keep us away from our workouts, or we just simply give up.

What this study suggests is that perhaps we’re doing things the wrong way around.

Maybe when we are thinking about being more active the first thing we need to do is focus on our mental state not our physical. Instead of thinking about the logistics of working out, such as trying to find a gym we like or an exercise class to take, we should start thinking about how we can boost our confidence and motivation.

Only after taking care of the mental aspect of exercise should we launch ourselves on the physical part.

That means taking the time beforehand to get ourselves suitably motivated and enthusiastic about exercise, and also having a clear plan of action on how we are going to do it. The better prepared we are the more confident we are likely to be that we will actually be able to do it this time.

But how do you motivate yourself? Well, just as you might get a personal trainer to help you learn how to do exercises, so you can get other kinds of trainers to help you find the motivation.

You could try hypnotherapy or visualization to help you imagine how you will feel and how you will look when you are more active.

You might be thinking that you can’t afford it, that it’s a waste of money. But think about all the money you’ve spent on exercise clothes you don’t wear, exercise equipment you don’t use or gym memberships you never take advantage of. By spending a little money up front to make sure your motivation is good you are increasing the likelihood you’ll use all these things.

You can go online and find any number of tips to get your brain in the right frame of mind. A good place to start is the website Zen Habits created by Leo Babauta, who writes a lot about the impact our mind has on our body (in fact on the home page you’ll find your first piece of inspiration, a quote from Aristotle “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit”)

Leo has a list of 31 things he does to get himself into the mood for exercise. He admits that there are days that he just doesn’t feel like getting off the couch, so he has a lot of standby strategies to help give him the motivation.

I’m sure you’ll find one or two there that work for you. And once you’ve started you may well come up with ideas of your own.

And if all else fails maybe we can turn to our Exerciser-in-Chief for some encouragement. If President Obama can get to the gym regularly don’t you think the rest of us can? Yes we can.

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