Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
As a kid, did you love taking a bath everyday? I didn’t. I even remember a day when I planned an elaborate scheme to avoid it. Needless to say, my mom saw right through my plan and I still had to get wet! Fast forward 25 years later, taking a shower is so ingrained in my habits that I couldn’t possibly fathom the idea of going to work without a prior healthy dose of body wash.
I developed a taste for exercise the exact same way. Although I always was relatively active, as a teenager I had an aversion for being sweaty and out of breath. When at 18 years old, a man at least ten years older than my Dad raced by me effortlessly in a 3-mile run, I realized that physical activity is an important part of personal hygiene. It is not the outside we are refreshing so we look good, it is the inside we are cleansing so we function well. To me, that was the tipping point when the excuses ended.
Last June I wrote an article entitled “Top 10 Stimuli to Exercise Your Body” which discussed strategies to make workouts more compelling. The present article should have preceded my Top 10 Stimuli, as it is addressed to people who contemplate starting to work out in the first place, a process I remember very well.
Einstein and Insanity
There is more information about the benefits of exercise available today than there ever was, yet 80% of American adults are too inactive to experience these benefits and an increasing number of developed countries around the world are following the trend.
As Einstein said it, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insane. So I won’t tell you why you should exercise. Chances are you already know it all too well and the appeal to logic has failed to motivate you. In fact, there may be so many sources telling you why you should exercise that it may inhibit your intrinsic motivation to emerge.
Rather, I’d like to help you understand why you may be resistant to take on a practice you know is good for you, and then provide ideas for how you can break out of the resistance.
Your Like-O-Meter at Work
|In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jon Haidt explains that our processing and decision-making abilities function much like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider – representing our logic – can control the direction in which they are headed, but only as long as the elephant – representing our instinctive and emotional thought processes – wants to comply. When the elephant has desires of his own, whether the rider asks, pulls, begs, cries or shouts makes no difference: they are still headed in the direction the elephant pleases.|
For many, personal experience has proven that physical activity is code for pain, sweat, difficulty, discomfort and clumsiness. If that’s your case, you probably feel you have low skills to meet a high challenge, a scary scenario sure to produce anxiety. I can’t blame your elephant for wanting to run away!
When your “Like-O-Meter” – the only real decision-making factor in an elephant’s world according to Haidt – indicates “-142,” your creativity is at work finding excuses, rather than solutions. What’s worse, while your excuses initially served to rationalize your gut reaction, they eventually become part of how your rider thinks! That’s when you get locked thinking that exercise isn’t for you.
For Each Excuse, a Solution
Having trained people for close to a decade, I’d like to offer ways to reprogram this dead-end thinking. In Changing for Good, Prochaska and colleagues explain that people who are not yet seriously contemplating change often hide behind excuses. Helping them raise awareness of their mental tricks can better equip them to face the music and train the elephant.
I have paired the most common excuses people use to avoid physical activity with a possible solution to alleviate each. Please locate your favorite excuse from the list below and see if my suggestion works to bust the excuse. (Note: Prochaska also notes that people usually don’t go from precontemplation to total readiness overnight, so bear in mind that I don’t expect you to undertake a half-marathon training in the next two days!)
1 – “I wasn’t made for exercise.”
In her influential book Mindset, Carol Dweck explains that there is no such thing as an athletic gene. Sure, some may be genetically more flexible or stronger than others, but what really differentiates you from these athletes you waste energy looking at every time you workout is how many hours they spent at it.
Train your elephant: Start by changing your mindset. It’s all about dedication, not predisposition. If predisposition there is, it would be that human bodies were made to exercise – including yours! Up until about 100 years ago, people used to walk almost everywhere they went. So at the very least, you can start walking everyday – or you’ll need to find another excuse!
2 – “I don’t have time.”
Here’s the Queen of all excuses! No time, did you say? And exactly how many hours of TV did you watch in total last week? Are there no TVs and elliptical machines at your gym? Oh! I get it! You have to stay home with the kids. Don’t they jump rope or play street hockey every once in a while? In many cases, the “no time” excuse usually means that exercise just isn’t high on a priority list.
Train your elephant: Let’s try some reframing. Truth is, the human brain needs down time. You can’t be efficient unless you rest every now and then. As much as you’d like to say you work 112 hours per week, you know better. Now maybe exercise doesn’t fit your definition of down time. However, since we know fitness increases attention, it really is quite a productive hobby for busy people. If you end your workouts with some breathing and stretching, you also get to relax in the process.
More importantly, various studies have shown that exercise increases longevity. So there you go. More time!
3 – “Exercise is real torture!”
Yes, if you want to build your capacity, you will have to reach past your comfort zone, and the initial discomfort will be immediate. We tend to tense inactive muscles when trying a new exercise, which increases soreness afterward.
Train your elephant: If you are aching for three days following each workout, you push too hard. Use mindfulness. Pay attention to what your body says. It doesn’t matter if other people are stronger, leaner, and more agile: one day they were in your shoes, just learning the moves.
4 -“The gym is SO boring!”
Here we have the opposite situation. If you are bored, it’s because you are just plugging in time. Those who learn and get involved with their sport aren’t bored. To the contrary, they get increasingly stimulated mentally. The same theory applies to lifting.
Train your elephant: Start by learning more about muscle groups, exercise combinations, periodization, cardiac output and the like. You’ll get mentally engaged. Csikszentmihalyi said it best: “When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again.”
5 – “I’m not a discipline person. I already self-regulate all day at work. When I’m on my own time, I want to enjoy myself.”
This excuse means that exercise can’t be enjoyable for you – or that you’ve given up trying to make it fun.
Train your elephant: Challenge your belief with some appreciative inquiry techniques: when have you enjoyed physical activity? Identify the root of your pleasure and build from there. Oh? You’re saying exercise has never been fun? Then let’s go back to Einstein: doing the same thing over and over will perpetuate the same results. Try something else. If you’ve always been involved with solo activities, join a team sport. If you’re not enjoying high-intensity, go for Tai-Chi. Your joints are the problem? Try a water aerobics class. Ever tried martial arts? Maybe hiking? Ballroom dancing? Tennis? Soccer? Surely, with some goodwill, you will find something that you can like.
6 -“It takes way too long before I get any results!”
You are plagued with the Big Gain Syndrome and/or you can’t delay gratification. We want it all, and we want it now, and shows like the Biggest Loser hardly help us take it slow, which creates frustration.
Train your elephant: Move your attention towards micro-process-goals. Rather than wait until you have lost those undesired 10 pounds to feel proud and celebrate, give yourself kudos for each section of your workout. If today your plan is to bike 30 minutes and that seems like a lot of pain, start by thinking of your warm-up time – about 5 minutes. Once you are through with it, focus only on the next 5-minute increment, surely you can handle that much. A good song is playing on the radio? Use it to increase your pace. When the rhythm is gone, take it slower for a bit, and use the opportunity to build in an active rest period.
Training with micro-goals will not only help you make it through the workout, but it will naturally create intervals of different intensity. Since interval training is recognized to bring about faster results, micro-goals will also diminish the time needed before you’ve attained your end result goal. This technique has worked wonders for me; I hope it does for you too!
Tuning Your Like-O-Meter
Lastly, remember that your elephant and your body will get conditioned together. At that point, physical activity becomes very self-reinforcing. When I feel stressed out for all the wrong reasons, I know a good jog will get me back on track. To quote Dave Shearon on this forum a few days ago, my elephant now bounces toward the opportunity to train, rather than away from it.
For me, exercise no longer requires motivation – it has become a habit, just like showering before work in the morning. And so it can for you also!
Let me know if my excuse-busting techniques have made you think!
Rights to all images were purchased by the author for the sole use of this article.
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