Updated: Jul 26
Do you exercise because you love movement OR because you hate fat? Is exercise just a necessary evil?
How your perspective, motivation, and ability to train your brain can affect your fitness level. Learn to understand what is happening physically and psychologically so you can control how you react to exercise.
"The difference between those who choose to push past the physical and emotional discomfort and those who run away is simply in the ability to acknowledge the perceived threat and control your reaction."
As a fitness coach, I’ve seen firsthand how people react to exercise. I can separate my clients and class members into at least 3 different categories.
The Fitness Fanatic or Athlete. You get high off of working out. You are a regular in my classes or train with me at least twice a week. You workout on your own or attend other classes on the days you are not with me. You are usually in the front row and ready to go; other members don’t dare take your spot. If, for some reason, I was unable to make it, you could probably teach the class yourself! You probably own more workout clothes than regular clothes. #fitnessfanatic
The Fitful. Something got you pumped and motivated so you decided to start hitting the gym. You have a vacation coming up or you just had a health screening OR (like 50% of the people in the gym in January) it’s your new year’s resolution to get in better shape. Whatever the case, you’ve decided to start…again. You see, you have a habit of being fitful about your fitness - starting and stopping often. You stick with it for a few classes or session but then something throws you off track and you stop until the next time…#fitful #stopquitting
The Getmethehelloutofhere'er. Somehow, someone talked you into starting this exercise program but the minute you got there you thought “what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here!”. You walked out of my class before the warm up was over and headed home to get back in your sweat pants. Or you stayed for the entire workout but decided you were NEVER doing THAT again. No endorphins here! You think people who “love to workout” are crazy and weird. #getmethehelloutofhere #ihateexercise
Of course, there are a lot of people in between, but for the purposes of this article I’m just talking about these three. What makes one person a fanatic while others try to avoid it at all cost? Why are some people able to stick to it while others consistently quit? It’s your brain, perspective, and motivation. Identifying and understanding the psychological impact that exercise has on you will help control how you react to it.
Our brains are conditioned to avoid discomfort. We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response – the physiological reaction that occurs when we are confronted by something physically or mentally threatening. But, exercise isn’t a threat, right? It’s supposed to be good for our bodies and minds. Not if you are overweight or in poor physical condition. In these instances, being physically active can lead to both physical and emotional pain.
Stress causes a release of hormones that prepare our bodies to either stay and deal with danger or run away to safety. This can happen in the face of imminent physical danger or a psychological threat. While this is an automatic response, critical to our survival, it is not always accurate. Consider phobias. My heart rate goes and I get hot and sweaty when I see a snake; but I know I’m not in any real danger. Anything that causes stress can cause your fight or flight response to kick in.
Dreading your next workout session.
Feeling overwhelmed by lack of time.
Physical pain such as soreness or difficulty catching your breath during exercise.
Physical limitations due to excess weight
Feelings of shame due to physical limitations or appearance
The difference between those who choose to push past the physical and emotional discomfort and those who run away is simply in the ability to acknowledge the perceived threat and control your reaction. Be honest with yourself when identifying your stressor and then train yourself to have a different perspective.
Focus on a Greater Purpose
A study investigating the interrelationship between self-objectification, reasons for exercise, body satisfaction, body esteem, and self-esteem concluded that women who exercised for reasons of weight, tone, and attractiveness experienced lower self-esteem and body satisfaction than women who exercised for functional reasons (Strelan, P., Mehaffey, S.J., & Tiggemann, M. 2003 Self-objectification and esteem in young women). Think about that for a second… If exercising for the purpose of looking good is associated with feeling bad then let’s change the purpose. Stop doing it as a means to lose weight (it doesn’t work that way anyway but that’s a different article). Stop exercising so you can look good in a bikini or be more attractive in some way. Find a purpose that has less to do with how you look and more to do with how you feel and what you are capable of. #Capax means #capable #fit #competent.
I want to have more energy
I want to run a marathon
I want to play soccer with my kid
I want to sleep better
I want to be able to take the stairs
Women often think that the benefit of improved appearance will automatically lead to feeling better about yourself, and thus serve that greater purpose. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, focus on developing skill and competence in an area that interests you.
Take Charge of Your Brain
Your brain is going to tell you to stop. When your muscles are burning, when you are sore, when you are tired… Your brain is going to say “Stop! You don’t have anything left! This sucks! Go home and put your sweat pants on!” But it’s lying!
As I’ve already mentioned, your brain is programmed to avoid pain; your body is capable of more than your brain allows. YOU are capable of more! This is another survival method that, like the fight or flight response, is not always accurate. It exists to ensure that your physiological limits are not exceeded. But it often triggers a reaction before it is actually physically needed. Researchers and exercise psychologists are continuously studying and finding new links between the brain and athletic performance as well as the brain’s effect on exercise.
A study from Northumbria University demonstrated that deceiving the brain can lead to an improvement in performance (Kevin Thompson 2011 Pushing the limits of performance). Cyclist who thought they were racing an avatar at the speed of their own personal best, were actually racing at a speed 1% faster. The subjects were able to match their computer opponent, going faster than they ever had before. In another study testing the placebo effect in endurance athletes, runners were told to be given an ergonomic aid, which was actually just plain water (Foster C, Felker H, Prcari JP, et al. 2004 The placebo effect on exercise performance). 12 out of the 16 runners ran faster when they thought they had ingested a performance enhancer.
While both studies refer to a metabolic reserve for athletes to tap into during competition, I believe that the non-athlete can also use this knowledge to improve performance – both athletic and behavioral. Understand that when you feel like quitting, you have a little left in you. Implement strategies for improvement.
10 minute rule:
When you don’t feel like working out tell yourself you are only going to go for 10 minutes. Chances are after 10 minutes you’ll feel a little better and you can complete the rest of the workout. If you are still miserable after your first 10, stop and try again tomorrow.
1 more rep rule:
If you are about to quick before time (or walk out of my class before it’s over) tell yourself to do just one more – one more rep, one more minute, one more section…whatever! And then next time do one more than that.
It has been long known by athletes (and you fitness fanatics) that there is a major connection between one’s mind and one’s performance. Train your brain to allow you to perform at your true best.
FIND PLEASURE IN IT
If you don’t, it just isn’t going to work long term. When training clients and classes, I use a wide variety of formats ranging from mind-body to weight lifting. As a fitness coach, part of my job is to find the right fit for each individual. One of two things will usually happen if a client is put on the wrong program – they will either quit or raise cortisol levels because they hate it so much.
It is crucial to your success that you find the activity that you enjoy. In a laboratory study on relatively inactive adults, participants indicated their preferences among 3 workouts and then performed each for 20 minutes (Parfitt & Gledhill 2004). After their preferred training method, their fatigue, psychological distress, and reported difficulty were lower, while their sense of well-being was higher. The differences are compelling because the work rates were roughly the same for all three workouts.
It may take some trial and error to find your preferred method of training, but once you do, you will begin to experience ALL the benefits of exercise. It will no longer be a necessary evil that you endure because you hate fat. You will begin to appreciate your body and all that it is capable of!