Can You Learn to Love Exercising?
The scientific evidence is indisputable. We all need to exercise if we want to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. So why don’t we?
Studies show that somewhere between 28 percent and 50 percent of all Baby Boomers don’t exercise at all, despite mountains of data documenting why we should.
That disconnect isn’t hard to understand. Your responsible, goal-directed self, the one who flosses and pays bills on time, says, “I really need to get out of my chair and go exercise.” Meanwhile, another inner voice is whispering, “I’ll do that tomorrow. Right now I’d rather (fill in the blank).”
This internal tug of war can stymie even the best intentions. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Pink has pointed out, the human brain evolved to deal with immediate threats and rewards, not long-term concerns like avoiding a heart attack 20 years from now. So it’s no wonder some three-fourths of our New Year’s resolutions go by the wayside by within a week, as researchers have found.
Luckily, the situation is far from hopeless. If you genuinely enjoy exercising and want to do it, the conflict disappears.
Time flies when you are deeply engaged in something. Instead of thinking about your workout, be fully present in it.
Does that sound impossible? Remember that in any fitness program, as in any sport, a lot of the challenge is mental. Here are some ways to stop disliking exercise and start embracing your inner athlete.
Change How You Frame It
When you think about going to exercise, does some part of you groan inwardly and start groping for reasons to do something else? You may be reacting that way automatically, without even realizing it.
If you find yourself thinking of exercise as a tedious chore, replace that narrative with a more affirmative one. Think of it as going in for an energy boost, which exercise really is. That puts the accent on the reward—that burst of energy and vitality that comes after a little honest exertion. You could also think of your workout as “me” time, your respite from the noise of the world, or a chance to learn more about your body and what it can do. You could even turn it into a social occasion by walking with a buddy or going to an exercise class.
It also helps if you schedule your exercise sessions as standing appointments, written on your calendar in ink. That takes decision-making out of it; going to a class or the gym is simply what you always do at that time on that day. Keep it up, and you might even find yourself looking forward to your next exercise date.
Time flies when you are deeply engaged in something. Instead of thinking about your workout, be fully present in it. That means connecting your mind and body, so you can set aside extraneous thoughts, focus on what you’re doing, and tap into your body’s innate knowledge of how to move.
How do you achieve the heightened awareness and relaxed concentration it takes to bring mind and body together? Focusing on the breath is a technique yogis have relied on for centuries. Before doing an exercise in the gym, take a moment to breathe in a controlled rhythm you can synchronize with the exercise, inhaling at the starting position and exhaling with the exertion. That will help you focus.
Meanwhile, your mind has another job to do—namely, maintaining good form as you’re moving. So if, for example, you’re doing a squat, you’re not thinking “What time is it?” or “How many more of these do I have to do?” Your mind is busy directing your body to keep your chest up, your shoulders down and back, and your knees pointed straight ahead as you make a sitting motion. Being focused on each repetition will help you get the most out of it while also avoiding wrong moves.
The same principles apply if you’re going for a walk, swim, or bike ride. Stay aware of your breathing, your posture, and how you’re moving. If you’re walking, are you using your big gluteal and thigh muscles to drive the motion, rather than shuffling along? Can you stand a little taller and keep your spine a little straighter?
Unifying mind and body is the opposite of distracting yourself with your cellphone or a TV program while mindlessly slogging through a routine. In essence, it’s meditation in motion—the body and mind, working in harmony. And once you’ve experienced a workout this way, you’ll want more.
Make Your Workouts Part of Your Identity
Remind yourself that you’re not in the habit of giving up on your intentions. When it comes to your work or your family, you give your best. Why wouldn’t you do the same for yourself? When you think about it like that, each workout is another chance to prove to yourself what kind of person you really are: smart, strong-minded, and persevering.
You can also tap into the power of visualization. Picture any figure or person whose strength or determination you admire—perhaps a Navy SEAL, one of the Amazons of legend, an Olympic medalist, or someone you know—and imagine yourself grabbing a little piece of that person’s mojo as you’re working out.
Setting a high bar is one way we excuse ourselves from doing things we’re ambivalent about. If a boot camp seems too daunting or you want to avoid anything that might bother your knees, there’s nothing wrong with opting out. But don’t let that keep you from doing something.
Rather than giving up when you find yourself unmotivated, do some small thing to get moving. Stretch your legs and arms, loosen your shoulders, and twist from your waist. Turn on some music and dance around the room. It feels good, doesn’t it? Now you’re ready to go for a walk or hit the gym.
When we were kids, the most fun we had was active play—chasing, climbing, riding bikes, roller skating around the block. It’s never too late to recapture that sort of exuberance. Meeting a strength-training challenge or going to a movement class might not be your idea of fun, but that’s okay. Try something else. There’s no end of activities to explore, and you never know what might spark that feeling we all wish for—the sense of being fully and jubilantly alive.