Sustained change is difficult. We’re hard-wired to behave like water, taking the easiest path down the hill. Sustained change requires that we fight this natural tendency. Enhance this effort by making the desired change a priority. I’m a big believer in the power of exercise to positively impact our mental and emotional lives. While nearly every one of my patients agrees, most of them lament that they just don’t have the time. I often encourage them not to find the time but to make the time for exercise. Carve out 30-45 minutes at some point in the day, four or five times a week—preferably before work or school—and make that time a priority.
I know, I know; if you aim for the stars, you just might land on the moon. But what might be true in space propulsion doesn’t always work down here on Earth. More than 50 percent of people who start exercising will drop out after six months and mental factors are the main culprit. Getting your mind right allows for and promotes consistency, effort, and longevity in exercise. Start modestly and then build slowly as time goes on. In other words, don’t knock yourself silly to the point of complete exhaustion when you start out. Remember—more tortoise and less hare wins the race every time.
Exercising for superficial rewards has little connection to the ability to adhere successfully to an exercise routine. How you look in the mirror, people admiring you on the beach, decreasing your belt size, fitting into a smaller dress size, or how much weight you push around the gym can all be motivating and even pleasurable… just not as much as you might expect in the long run. What matters most for sustaining exercise is less ego and more intrinsic meaning. In other words, try to make your exercise personal in a way that is independent of what other people think or even something that can be objectively measured. This is one reason why I recommend that patients not weigh themselves once they’ve started an exercise routine. It’s not that objective indicators of health (e.g., weight, muscle mass, body fat percentage, cholesterol, blood pressure, resting heart rate, etc.) aren’t important, it’s just that they’re not nearly as effective as something more personal when it comes to sustaining consistent exercise. When I got back into vigorous exercise five years ago after herniating a disk in my back, being able to play with my kids and hold my infant daughter motivated me in a much deeper way than the scale or the mirror could ever do.
Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” There is also a board that all Texas football players see before they leave the football offices that reads, “To be great you have to be consistently good.” These are two of my all-time favorite quotes, as they highlight the central importance of consistency and patience in achievement and success. This insight is often lost in today’s world, in which fortunes are won—and lost—overnight, people gain instant fame—or infamy—on reality television shows, messaging is instant with expectations for an immediate reply, and 24-hour news and work cycles reward—if not demand—immediacy. Results from exercise, on the other hand, require consistency, diligence, and patience. I bet that many people drop out of exercise routines because they do not see immediate results, they get discouraged, and they assume—incorrectly—that their efforts will never eventuate in success. Again, it’s not about what looks good in the mirror or on the scale. It’s about what feels right in your soul.
There are bound to be times when you don’t feel like working out, when you can think of a thousand other things you’d rather be doing (like sleeping an extra hour, for crying out loud!), when you rationalize not going for that extra rep (or not using heavier dumbbells or not adding an extra five minutes on the elliptical), or when you choose not to exercise at all due to injury rather than—if possible—working around it. These excuses and others like them have one primary result: they hold you back from making progress. Excuses are the mind’s way of maintaining the status quo and (in some cases) rewarding laziness. Remember: Every time you allow an excuse to dictate your choices, you stay the same and you get further away from your goal.
One of the biggest but most over-looked mistakes people make when they exercise is that they get into a comfortable exercise routine that never changes. If you are not changing up your routine in some way every month or two, your muscles habituate in a manner that prevents or slows their continued growth, and your mental edge becomes dulled by what soon becomes a monotonous if not boring routine. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life (something that holds true inside—and outside—the gym).
Embracing doubt means that we face it and fight through it as a way of overcoming or conquering its debilitating effects on our performance. I typically tell athletes in my practice that if they do not encounter some form of doubt during a training session, they’re not pushing themselves hard enough. By facing and overcoming our doubts, we push through psychological and physical barriers we never thought possible.
Most people don’t know what they’re doing in the gym. They are simply going through a set of exercises that were taught to them by a high school coach or P.E. teacher. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not picking on high school coaches and P.E. teachers—they’re great! But what is advisable or appropriate for a 16-year-old is much different for someone ten, 20, and certainly 30 years older. We are truly lucky to be in Austin, which is home to (in my opinion) the best personal trainers among health-minded cities. A personal trainer can customize a workout program for you on the basis of your stated goals, fitness level, and time-availability. There is also an element of accountability built into the trainer-trainee relationship that can help to guard against dropping out or not bringing an adequate level of intensity to an exercise session. I love going to my personal trainer; Dane and I have a great relationship, and it’s always a challenging and enjoyable workout that pushes me in ways I would struggle to do on my own. The costs of personal training may at first make it seem impractical but when weighed against the physical and emotional costs associated with poor health, it’s a bargain you can’t pass up!
Becoming part of an exercise community can be a great way to help you stick to a program of exercise and push yourself during the workout with greater intensity and drive. Whether it’s one of the many wonderful boot camps around town, a CrossFit box, regularly scheduled classes at your gym, or an online exercise group such as those offered through BeachBody.com, getting connected to other like-minded fitness folks is a sure-fire way of making sure that the holiday calories go down the drain.
Exercise hard, eat right, and tell someone who deserves it that you love him or her.
Dr. Tim Zeddies, clinical and sports psychologist, has outlined nine tips that are crucial to achieving change and realizing your exercise goals. For more information from Dr. Zeddies on the difficulty of making changes, read “It’s Go Time! How to Press Your Play Button” in the online and print versions of Austin Fit Magazine.