Starting a fitness program is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. The mental challenge of getting in shape plays a huge part in why exercise programs fail. 1
One of the most painful experiences of my life was getting back in shape. I’ve had three children. Two natural and one via c-section. I’ve suffered a twisted ovary which is excruciating and I still rank getting back in shape as the “suckiest” experience of my life.
The difference between that pain and the pain of getting in shape is time. The others ended at some point where the fitness journey seemed to last forever.
Getting back in shape sucked for almost a year. As each day progressed the pain got worse. The better I got at exercise the worse it became. My body was able to exert more energy which means I was able to kick my ass harder. The more I could do the more it hurt, both during and after.
If it sucked so bad why did I keep doing it? How did I avoid giving up?
Whenever I pushed myself through a really tough workout something amazing happened when I stopped. I felt great! The more the exercise sucked the better it felt when I stopped. This golden nugget of a feeling became the crowning glory that led me to being in the best shape of my life, and staying there.
Having a strategy to tackle the mental challenges of getting in shape is key to sticking with it. The good news is that if you do stick with everything gets better.
As humans we have built-in survival instincts. One of these primal instincts is to avoid pain. Let me tell you that if you have been sitting on your bum for 7 years attempting exercise is painful. It didn’t take more than a week before I noticed that my brain was trying to talk me out of this. I would go out for a run and my brain would be screaming at me to stop – what my dad calls “stinkin’ thinkin'”.
This conversation from your brain is devious. It starts small like my lungs are going to pop, my heart is going to fall out of my chest, my hips are going to crack up to we are going to die!! Really this is just your body trying to balance its energy. It knows how to fuel all of your body parts with your current habits and this habit is new, it isn’t sure how to process it. To keep balance it wants you to stop.
Your systems can’t process for you that the current habits aren’t healthy and the new ones will be. It will eventually get the message and set a new level of balance where it accepts physical activity rather than rejecting. You have to push through the rejection to get there. To help you through that process you can use a mental game to start to reset your thought process.
A stronger natural instinct that can override our avoidance to pain is our desire to seek pleasure. We will endure discomfort if we feel that the outcome is something pleasurable. Something like the elation you feel when exercise ends! But for this to truly kick-in your brain has to have a strong cognizant connection that the elation is directly attributed to the stimulus. Fancy words for your brain needs to know what made you feel good.
So often we can get these connections wrong. We eat a piece of cheesecake and we feel so good while we are eating it. Your brain connects the cheesecake to feeling happy. The connection works against you. It isn’t the cheesecake that made you feel good, it’s the rush of fast energy from the simple carbohydrates and calories. A few hours later you feel sick but your brain doesn’t connect the crash from the sugar high to the cheesecake. It thinks we need more energy we must have more cheesecake! It’s a vicious cycle.
To fix your “stinkin’ thinkin'” you must purposely change the wiring of your brain. If you can convince your brain that the elation you feel when exercise ends is directly associated with the level of exertion you put in it will stop trying so hard to talk you out of it. Eventually it will even start to talk you into it!
When you stop exercising and you get the happy feeling focus on it. Think deliberate thoughts that you feel good because you put in this work. If you do this enough your brain gets the message. Pain has no memory so the bad feelings with fade. If you’ve ever given birth you know what I mean. You know that it hurt like the dickens but you can’t for the life of you remember exactly what it felt like. The good feeling will stick and eventually your brain will start seeking exercise rather than avoiding it.
Tackling the Mental Challenge of Getting in Shape
One other thing you might want to do while you’re re-programming your brain is to make mental notes of the times when exercise does suck. Remember, those will fade and you won’t remember how bad it was. When you start to have feelings like stopping exercise you may want to pull from that to remind you that you really don’t want to go through that again.