22 December 2007

Exercise and Motivation:

We all know the benefits of regular exercise, we are bombarded by its importance nearly every second day. Yet the irony is that the majority of us still have no inclination to do it. If I gave you a pill and said it could curb many diseases, allow you to not only have greater longevity but also quality of life with the added benefits of “natural highs”, helped you get better sleep, increased your libido, kept your hormones in check… and the list goes on, would you not say “Fuck yes, how much for one of these magic pills?”. I know I certainly would. What if I then went on to say it was virtually free? I think I’ve found an audience… But the minute I add that it would perhaps require a small bit of exercise, maybe two or three times a week, the crowd dissipates and only a handful of people still remain. Why is this? Exercise is proven to be bloody good, check out "The Many Benefits of Exercise, Part 1" if you need further convincing of this.

We all know that we should be exercising, so why aren’t we?Is it laziness? Or perhaps lack of time? I doubt it, because some still manage to do it, and I know several lazy and or busy people who exercise regularly. If I had to give one major reason for our inability to exercise it would largely be to do with psychology. Simply put, people seem to dread exercise. Exercise has a negative association. It is like the potion of youth and success, but with an utterly horrible aftertaste.

The negative association with exercise does not have to exist, indeed the view is most often unfounded, being largely the byproduct of people trying to go from doing no exercise to exercising two hours everyday and in the process overexerting themselves, often injuring themselves and generally taxing their psychological ability to bear exercise. Thus they quickly develop a pessimistic relationship with exercise, the exercise does not last, and whats more they finish feeling disheartened as they have not changed as they thought they would. This often goes hand in hand with grossly unrealistic expectations regarding the results they should expect.

The simple fact is that exercise does not have to be hard or unbearable. It can indeed be enjoyable and recreational. The biggest secret to doing exercise and doing it consistently (especially when we think about it in the scheme of life as a whole) is to do exercise that you like. Don’t do the latest fat burning routine, its probably bollocks, and even if it isn’t you probably won’t be able to do it for more than a week unless you happen to find you enjoy it. If you hate running and your told running is best for fat-loss why run? Why not cycle, or swim, or play tennis?

Motivation is a funny thing. Think about it like this. There are two kind of people who succeed in this world. Those who are determined and push through and do things that they hate to do to succeed (by whatever your definition of success is), and those who just do what they love and succeed because they love doing it and thus get good at it and thus do it more and thus love it more, creating an ongoing positive cycle. Which person has an easier time? The first person may have all the dedication in the world (and good on them in that regard), but ultimately they are leading a life of misery doing something they wish they weren’t doing. There is more to life than just determination, there’s this important factor called contentment, or happiness. And if you’re happy and determined that’s great, but the fact is you don’t have to be extra determined to do something you love, as you’d do it regardless!

So, be sure to do some form of exercise you like. There are so many sports and activites out there, these always something for someone. Think rock climbing, martial arts, canoeing, hiking…the list is endless. As long as it gets you up and moving abit its good enough, you could even invent your own sports!

Another good trick is to do your exercise socially. As a cyclist who rides to work I’m a bit of a hypocrite here, but I definantly wish I did more exercise with friends. Get yourself a training partner, or play a team sport, or compete with other people. Not only will you make friends and broaden your social horizons but you will enjoy a sport with other people, giving you all a healthy interest you share. Exercising socially will provide an added stimulus to turn up to training (not wanting to let the team down etc), as well as making you feel connected and a part of something.

If you like achieving things, set goals, compete professionally or chart your progress. This approach is certainly not for everyone, but rather for those who are more competitive. Still, as long as it makes you feel empowered and as though your going somewhere it’s fine and good. The minute you feel your going backwards because of it, stop, take a step back, and reconsider whether this approach is really right to motivate you for long term exercise.

Remember not to force yourself to do exercise, but at the same time do try to make a commitment. Often we feel lethargic and don’t want to exercise, but a few minutes into it we feel great. This may partly be because of endorphins, but I think its more than that, I think its about getting into a rhythm, a routine of sorts, and just feeling productive. Plus I think there’s a primitive pull to get outside and stretch your muscles. So remember that while there may be initial apathy simply get up and give it ago. Nine times out of ten if you push through you end up enjoying the activity and afterwards really feel good about it. If your absolutely positive that you won’t enjoy the activity (and this is your call to make) then don’t, and don’t stress about it, the guilt will not help in anyway.

If you find yourself continually dreading your chosen exercise (as I did at one time doing sprints three times a week at an ungodly hour!) then simply stop it. We want this to be an activity you ENJOY. Enjoyment is the key word here. Remember if you enjoy the activity it will not require nearly as much commitment or dedication to keep it up. If on the other hand you hate the exercise you do it will take all your dedication and willpower to keep up the routine. In the latter scenario your psychological wellbeing will ultimately suffer and you will typically find yourself worse off in the long term than if you had simply done something you would have enjoyed more and been more able to stick to.

You can also spice up your exercise routine from time to time. For example, if after three months of running your bored, try swimming for the next three months (especially if its warmer weather). Not only will this keep you psychologically happy but it will exercise your body in different manners to! If you’ve been exercising for a long period of time (were talking a few months at least here) and you’re really losing momentum, sometimes taking a week off is good, just to allow you to relax, take a quick break, and come back all the more refreshed. Providing these breaks stay the exception they are perfectly within reason, indeed encouraged. Sometimes it’s good to time these breaks too. If you’re about to go on holiday or if the gym is closed for a week over Christmas, this the perfect opportunity to take refreshing break from your exercising. You’ll really be surprised how effective these breaks can be for your psychological wellbeing and how a simple break can help boost morale. Often after a week off a sport you love and enjoy (but are just temporarily a bit tired of) you’ll find yourself wanting to be doing the activity towards the end of your break off.

If for some reason you simply still cannot bring yourself to do any form of exercise I would ask you to simply go for a walk around your area. Find a nice park (preferably on a nice day) go for a little stroll for say half an hour or so and just see the mood you are in when you get back home. Typically you will be feeling greatly refreshed and amazingly upbeat. If you do simply tell yourself that this is the sort of quality of life I can expect to have if I find a form of exercise that I enjoy and can commit too.

Motivation is a complex topic and different techniques will work for different people. My best overall advice for motivation is to stay positive, progress at a realistic pace in your activity of choice and make sure you enjoy what you do. Enjoying what you do will motivate you further. Not only this, but life simply is to valuable to waste doing things you don’t enjoy, yet at the same time realise that certain things will pay off long term and help improve your overall quality of life. Make sure to think long term, as anything gained by a small burst of willpower will typically not last. What we need here is long term motivation, all the more reason why you should make sure you enjoy what you do.

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