Change your mind, and you just might change your body, too. Psychologists say our “self talk” or “internal dialogue” can make or break a fitness routine.
The problem is that many people simply aren’t aware of how destructive their thoughts are, says Gareth Dutton, a psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who specializes in helping people to exercise and lose weight.
“The thing that precedes your behavior is a thought, and we sometimes aren’t good at getting in touch with our thoughts,” he says. “We’re on autopilot.”
The first step in charting the right course to fitness is to recognize how your thoughts are undermining your exercise plan, says Dutton. The second step is to challenge the negative thinking – and there’s certainly no shortage of that when it comes to exercise.
Playing mind games
The key, Dutton says, is to remember that “a thought is just a thought. It doesn’t mean it’s reality.” In other words, just because you think you hate everything about exercise doesn’t mean you can’t find some activities that are more tolerable than others. Likewise, just because you think you absolutely have to eat that piece of pumpkin cheesecake (easily canceling out the calorie burn of your workout) doesn’t mean that you really do.
It can be tough for beginners to master the skills necessary to adhere to an exercise plan, but give it time, advises Diane Whaley, an associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and a spokesperson for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “If you can stick it out for six months, it starts to become a part of who you are versus what you do,” she says. “You have more of an identity as an exerciser.”
Plus, you’ll probably see some positive results that can motivate you to keep at it. Among them: better muscle tone, feeling stronger and more fit, weight loss, improved mood and better sleep.
Ready to change your bad exercise thoughts to better thoughts? Try these mind games:
Bad thought: “I hate exercise. I just don’t like anything about it.”
Better thought: “There must be some type of physical activity that I can find at least tolerable, and maybe even enjoy. Besides, exercise is important for my health and wellness, and to allow me to keep up with my kids/grandchildren.”
Bad thought: “There’s no way I can find the time to exercise.”
Better thought: “Is there any evidence to the contrary? How have I managed to fit in exercise in the past? Maybe I can’t spend 30 straight minutes a day on exercise at a gym, but surely I can fit in 10-minute chunks of physical activity here and there.”
Bad thought: "I tried to start a fitness plan but the pain of exercise is just too much for me."
Better thought: "I find exercise uncomfortable now but that doesn’t mean it will feel like this when I get in better physical shape. I just need to take things slowly. Plus, there are many positive aspects to exercise that I can try to focus on, such as how it’s making me healthier and to feel better overall.”
Bad thought: “It’s raining so I can’t get in my usual morning walk around the neighborhood today.”
Better thought: “It’s raining, so today I’ll go walk at the gym or the mall instead.”
Bad thought: "I'll never be able to lose all this weight."
Better thought: "I’m not feeling very hopeful right now but this is just a thought and it doesn’t mean I truly can’t lose weight. I know that diet and exercise won’t allow me to shed these pounds overnight, so I need to set reasonable, achievable goals — and stay the course.”
Bad thought: “I’ve missed a few workouts, so I might as well throw in the towel.”
Better thought: “I’ve temporarily fallen off the fitness wagon, but I can get back on. Why did I miss those workouts, and how can I avoid this happening next time? How can I change my schedule to make exercise fit in? For starters, I could schedule workouts for next Tuesday and Thursday right after work.”