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The biggest obstacle to a better bod: your brain

How’s your New Year’s fitness resolution coming along? Three months into the year, plenty of people who rang in 2006 with a commitment to shape up are probably sitting it out instead. The biggest hurdle is the brain, exercise psychologists say.

How’s your New Year’s fitness resolution coming along? If your exercise plan is still on track, congrats! But now into the third month of 2006, plenty of people who rang in the year with a commitment to shape up are probably sitting it out instead.

With statistics showing that more than half of people who embark on a new exercise plan drop it within three to six months, many who resolved to work out more this year will have fallen off the fitness wagon by swimsuit season.

“Motivation and commitment can rapidly evaporate,” says sport psychologist Jim Gavin, who reviewed the latest findings on exercise psychology in the February issue of the IDEA Fitness Journal, a publication targeted to exercise instructors and personal trainers.

In our overscheduled world, lack of time is often cited as a key reason for not exercising. But Gavin, a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, says that changing the way you think about exercise can help you to work it into a busy lifestyle.

Some mental strategies can even train your brain to enjoy — or at least not totally loathe — physical activity.

“Your psyche can really help you and it can really hurt you,” says Jenny Susser, a sports psychologist at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

Here’s how to change your mindset about fitness:

Realize it’s OK to hate gyms
To get fit, you don't necessarily have to get in your car, drives miles to a gym, change, work out, shower, get dressed and drive home. That’s our modern-day idea of fitness but the truth is that you don’t have to set foot in a gym if you don’t want to.

Many people are too intimidated by the club scene to ever do so, says Susser.

“Walking into a gym where you don’t know anybody can be just like walking into a bar or job where you don’t know anybody,” Susser says. Plus, gym newbies may not feel comfortable with their bodies, their clothes or the equipment. The end result: a wasted club membership.

You may be better off spending some of that money on a few sessions with an in-home trainer who can jumpstart your fitness plan, she notes.

It’s also OK if you don’t LOVE to work out
There are things we have to do that we don’t necessarily always like, but we do them anyway. Take work, for instance. “Just because you’re a CEO doesn’t mean you’re dying to go to work,” says Susser.

As an All-American college swimmer at UCLA, Susser trained 30 hours a week. “There were definitely days when I’d have rather stayed in bed,” she says.

But while you may not always look forward to working out, you should try to find activities that you enjoy participating in. That will help motivate you to keep moving.

Remember your childhood
You knew psychologists would ask you to search deep into your past, didn’t you? Well, here’s a good reason: Chances are you actually liked — maybe even loved — physical activity when you were a kid.

“Joy in movement is something you see in children when they move spontaneously,” says Gavin. “We don’t do that as adults.”

Instead, we tend to zone out on treadmills in front of a bank of TVs. And how fun is that? That image turns off a lot of couch potatoes.

“It doesn’t look like joy and fun,” says Gavin. “When people mentally think of being active, that’s where their mind goes. Modern-day fitness is uninteresting to a lot of people. It’s essentially repetitious, monotonous activity as it’s normally practiced.”

So try to put some spontaneity back into your fitness: frolic with the kids at the park; meander along the beach or a lake; or play some of your favorite childhood games such as badminton or hopscotch.

Liken exercise to brushing your teeth
You brush your teeth out of habit. Try to approach exercise with that same mindset, says Craig Wrisberg, president of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology and a professor of sport psychology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

“The main thing is to make it a regular routine,” Wrisberg says, “just like brushing your teeth.”

If you view physical activity as a key component of a healthy lifestyle, he says, you’ll be less likely to blow it off.

Change your vocabulary
Hate to exercise? Try to not think of it that way.

“Take the word ‘exercise’ and put it in the garbage can,” says Gavin. “It’s a word that has a lot of negative connotations.” He even goes so far as to call it “noxious.”

People often say they hate to exercise. But it’s harder to object to the terms “physical activity” or “movement.”

Exercise is a loaded word that’s often equated with going to the gym or jogging, activities that coach potatoes aren’t keen on, Gavin says. But you don’t have to hit the gym or jog miles to get benefit.

Instead, think about simply getting more movement in your daily life, he advises, such as by walking, biking, gardening or even house-cleaning. It all adds up.

Take the long view
Fitness programs often fail because people have a "one-shot wonder mentality" in which they want immediate results or else they quit, says Wrisberg.

But exercise does not produce dramatic results overnight — or even in just a couple of months. If you were banking on losing lots of weight from January till now, or getting a super-sculpted bod, you just haven't put in enough time. So stay the course.

In the meantime, notice how much better you feel after you exercise. The feel-good effect can be short-lived, but some regular exercisers thrive on it, says Susser.

“I think you get psychologically hooked," she says. "There’s such a sense of power from exercise and sport — not just the competition but the physicality of pushing yourself.”

Research shows that while beginning exercisers are generally motivated by physical goals, over time people are more motivated by how physical activity makes them feel.

"Once people get to the point where they find that activity or couple of activities that work for them, they get sort of a positive addiction,” Wrisberg says. "Getting people to that point is the challenge of exercise psychology. We’re not sure exactly when it happens but it can happen.”

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.