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. Mindset can be referred to “the stories you tell yourself, about yourself.”
The right mindset can help us get the right frame of mind to take up and stay with regular workouts and at the same time make an enjoyable habit out of exercise.
Oftentimes, women resolve to start working out, even attend a few classes, only to skip exercising for a month or more after a few weeks.
Many women 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.
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 goal, 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, just realize that you have the power in your mind to restart the process.
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. A single workout won’t transform your body. 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.
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. But unless you’re emotionally engaged in the process, you’ll sabotage yourself every time.
It’s easy to get intimidated or overwhelmed. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. The trick 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 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.
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.
Exercise is part of a sustainable wellness plan — and that’s a plan that you work on forever and hopefully, will become an enjoyable lifestyle habit.