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Research shows that shaming or scaring yourself into hitting the gym isn’t nearly as effective as finding a physical activity you actually enjoy.
If exercise seems like a great idea but you can never keep up a routine, it’s worth considering your exercise “mindset”—defined by psychologists as core assumptions that shape our behavior and reality. While it’s long been known that mindsets can make a big difference in academic performance and navigating stress, evidence is mounting that targeting some of our most ingrained, habitual beliefs and replacing them with more adaptive ones can rev up our ability to keep ourselves healthy.
“Whether they’re true or false, mindsets have an impact,” says Dr. Alia Crum, who runs the Stanford Mind & Body Lab. “They change what we pay attention to, what we’re motivated to do, how we feel emotionally about what we’re doing and what we decide to prioritize.”
For instance, maybe you’ve tried to shame or scare yourself into going to the gym by recounting the health risks of not moving. Or perhaps you’ve aimed to get active by thinking of the long-term upsides of exercise: In addition to promoting longevity, exercising regularly is 1.5 times more effective than medication for easing mild to moderate depression, stress and anxiety.
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Yet when it comes to exercise, reminding ourselves that something is good for us isn’t always enough to get us to comply. That may be why fewer than 28% of Americans meet the exercise guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which call for 150 minutes of physical activity every week.
While the intention of publishing more stringent exercise guidelines is to encourage people to be more active, they have a tendency to backfire. “We have evidence showing that the whole intention of these higher guidelines is to motivate people to meet them, but it’s actually having the opposite effect,” according to Crum. One study found that college students and university staff who received more flexible exercise recommendations were significantly more inclined to increase their physical activity.
What inspires exercise motivation, explains Crum, a former NCAA Division I athlete, are your beliefs about whether what you’re doing is adequate and how you view the process of exercise. Do you think of it as fun and social, or boring and painful?
In a landmark study in 2007, Crum experimented with the power of mindset on a group of hotel room attendants who spent their days vacuuming and changing sheets but didn’t necessarily consider themselves active. When researchers congratulated half the group for not only meeting but exceeding the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle, a month later, that group showed a decrease in blood pressure and weight compared with a control group who didn’t receive positive encouragement.
Of course, perception alone isn’t everything. “Be aware of your mindset, then work to change that to a more adaptive way of thinking in addition to doing activity,” advises Crum. A study she coauthored with Dr. Octavia Zahrt, involving more than 61,000 Americans, found that regardless of how much exercise people got, those who perceived themselves as less active than their peers were significantly more likely to die than those who thought they were more active. “When we tell people, ‘Hey, you’re doing a lot right now,’ that motivates them to do more,” Crum said.
In contrast, thinking about exercise in all-or-nothing terms—“I need at least 30 minutes or there’s no point”—is the enemy of consistency. You want to adopt the mindset that “any and all movement is worth it, and everything counts,” says Dr. Michelle Segar, a sustainable-change researcher at the University of Michigan and the author of “The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise.”
Even a quick walk in the middle of a hectic day is a deposit toward your well-being. If that doesn’t resonate with your perfectionist tendencies, consider whether those tendencies have worked for you. Though rigid standards may help some people, for many others they backfire, creating a vicious cycle of failure.
Besides bringing generosity and flexibility to how you view your movement, changing your “why” for getting active can also help sustain your motivation. Rather than seeing workouts as a way to burn calories or lose weight, which can perpetuate self-criticism, it can help to focus on more immediately gratifying reasons to do it, like clearing your mind or feeling less stressed, according to Segar.
Approaching the process of exercise as something that’s appealing and even indulgent makes a difference. The key, say researchers, is to focus on the pleasure that exercise can bring, then pick an activity that is actually rewarding.
“People tend to say that health is their primary motivator for exercise, but that’s actually a poor driver of lasting motivation,” says Segar, who found that changing her mindset helped her to keep up her running routine in all sorts of weather. “Instead of feeling annoyed when it began to pour when I was running, I got curious about what it would be like to move in the rain,” she explains. That helped her savor the experience.
Framing exercise as appealing even helps to motivate people who might find physical activity painful, such as those with osteoarthritis in the knees. Richard Bernstein, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, was born blind and lives with ongoing chronic pain after a serious accident. Yet he has completed 25 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, even with a notably demanding work schedule. When asked how he does it, he acknowledges that it all began by changing his mindset. “I always had a view that athletics was something I would never be able to do…it was for the cool kids, it was for the leaders,” he said, describing feeling sidelined during grade school physical education classes.
Then he was invited to join a meet-up with Achilles International, an organization that empowers people with disabilities to participate in athletic opportunities. At first he doubted whether this was something he was physically capable of, but the nonprofit’s founder, Dr. Dick Traum, assured him that “This is totally something you could do.” As Bernstein found joy in running with others, his miles slowly mounted, and he fell into marathon training, which sparked a drive to do even more.
“Reaching a fitness goal was the last thing on my mind,” he says. Exercise became associated with the delight of being outdoors and the camaraderie of others, and he’s found that the process sparks a cycle of flourishing: “Athletics is almost spiritual in a way. It allows you to be strong, it allows you to push forward, it allows you to find that inner strength. The more I move, the better I actually feel.”
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