Shift your thinking to improve your health and reach your fitness goals.
Exercise is as much mental as it is physical. And when it comes to exercise adherence – the ability to stick with a workout plan over the long term – the mental aspect is even more important. "Exercise adherence is a behavior, and psychology determines behavior," says Jennifer Carter, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. Even after considering more tangible roadblocks to exercise, such as physical limitations, packed schedules or fatigue at the end of the day, it's ultimately how people think about these barriers that determines what they do about them, she says.
With that in mind, we tapped psychological experts to explain the most common reasons people struggle to stay with a routine – and how to develop healthy fitness habits.
You exercise for external reasons.
Motivation matters, with all sources of motivation existing on a spectrum from extrinsic to intrinsic. "Extrinsic motivation involves external rewards and punishment-motivating behavior," Carter says. "For example, exercising solely to earn points in your company's health plan is an external reward, and exercising to avoid your partner chiding you for weight gain is rooted in avoiding punishment." Though such external sources of motivation can prompt short-term changes, they are rarely sustainable, she says. What's more, working out based on extrinsic factors puts you at risk of creating an unhealthy relationship with exercise and your body.
How to alter your mindset: Make it personal.
When exercise is 100 percent intrinsically motivated, it is all about the pure pleasure of what you're doing in that moment, says Mary E. Jung, director of the Health and Exercise Psychology Laboratory at the University of British Columbia. However, as far as exercise adherence is concerned, working out for the simple joy of exercising isn't always realistic either. That's why she recommends thinking about your current sources of motivation and how you can move them along the spectrum to be more intrinsic.
So, instead of focusing on the number on the scale, focus on having more energy or being better able to comfortably play with your kids or grandkids. Also, consider ways you can find more enjoyment in exercise – whether that means trying a different workout, crafting a perfect playlist or switching your gym workouts for outdoor ones, she says. A helpful tactic is thinking back to one workout that made you feel really great during or after, according to findings from 2014 research published in the journal Memory. The study found that simply recalling a positive workout memory helped to inspire future exercise.
Your goals take time.
Fitness results require time, consistency and patience, while humans prefer immediate rewards, such as the feeling of de-stressing in front of the TV or going out with friends. Even staying late at work comes with the instant gratification of crossing tasks off your to-do list, making it more enticing than the long-term investment of exercise. "The world we currently live in is fraught with competing interests for our time, and they often come with much more immediate rewards compared to exercise's effects such as losing weight, lowering your cholesterol or building muscle," Jung says.
How to alter your mindset: Write down instant rewards.
"To get [the] immediate rewards of exercise, you have to be aware of them; you have to be looking for them," Jung says. She recommends keeping a gratitude journal to write down the ways in which you benefit from exercise during or after just one workout session. It could help you de-stress, put a period at the end of your work day, relieve headaches or allow you to get out of your head for 30 minutes or an hour.
"As a two-sport college athlete, exercise has been part of my day for so many years that I feel weird without it," Carter says. "I satisfy social and competitive needs by swimming with friends and playing on a recreational volleyball team with coworkers. But the best motivator for me is using exercise as therapy. Exercise is such a stress relief for me – it quiets my anxious mind and helps me sleep great."
You let other people run your workouts.
Having a personal trainer or group fitness instructor can help take a lot of guesswork out of your workouts, but blindly following what someone else says isn't necessarily helpful toward building a long-term habit, Jung says. That's especially true if your trainer or instructor – or whoever else is telling you what exercises you should be doing – has you performing exercises you don't enjoy. "Autonomy – feeling like exercise or a given exercise is your choice – is critical to adherence," she says. "If you don't have that, it's hard to be intrinsically motivated."
How to alter your mindset: Take ownership.
If you work with a personal trainer, talk to her about which exercises you like and dislike, and how you take part in the process of planning your workout routine, Jung says. If you frequent exercise classes, make sure they are fitness classes you truly enjoy – and if necessary, perform different variations of instructed exercises. Similarly, it's OK if you don't enjoy whatever the "hot new exercise" is right now, she says. In the end, the best exercise is the one you enjoy. And no matter the setting, you should feel like you have a say in how you spend your exercise time, Jung says.
You don't feel like you're any good at your workout.
A 2003 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise review found that confidence in one's exerciseability is the highest predictor of how much a person will exercise. Meanwhile, a lack of confidence in one's exercise ability is the highest predictor of how little a person will work out. After all, people naturally don't like to do things that they don't feel they are good at, and they don't tend to stick with things they don't enjoy, Jung says.
How to alter your mindset: Play to your strengths.
"Confidence doesn't happen right away," Jung says. "But you can build it, starting by mastering things you know you can achieve." For instance, if you know you can walk a mile, walk a mile. At the end of your successful workout, the sense of accomplishment gained will give you the confidence to push yourself further next time. Keep pushing yourself to increase your confidence and fitness level. Over time, both will grow, she says.
You beat yourself up.
"We think that the harder we are on ourselves, the more we will exercise and the more we will see results, but that's just not the case," Jung says. For example, a 2008 Journal of Health Psychology study found that the more dissatisfied women were with their bodies, the more likely they were to avoid exercise.
How to alter your mindset: Show self-compassion.
"We can't shame ourselves into [a] behavior change, but we can encourage ourselves to improve [our] behavior," Carter says. "When you hear judgments in your head like, 'You're lazy,' 'You're fat' or 'You haven't exercised in weeks, just give up,' notice those beliefs without treating them as facts. Gently redirect your focus to the facts," Carter says.
The reality might be that your current strategy just isn't the right one for you, perhaps because of your current motivators or lack of enjoyment or say in your workouts, Jung says. "Think of how supportive people in your life would talk to you," Carter adds. "Practice speaking to yourself that way."
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