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Exercise: Mindset Matters

by Berkeley Wellness  

Why does exercise come naturally to some people, while for others it seems like torture? Many factors come into play, such as childhood experiences (including parental role modeling), physical abilities, self-confidence, habit, motivation, cultural norms, age, body image, and genetics, as well as beliefs and expectations about the potential health benefits andunpleasant aspects of exercise. All of these help shape people’s attitudes (conscious or unconscious) about exercise and physical activity in general. Negative attitudes keep many people in their seats.

Do you have a negative mindset? You do if you are physically able but think that exercise is too difficult, embarrassing, painful, exhausting, or too time-consuming. If you have a pro-activity mindset, you’re likely to think that exercise not only helps keep you healthy and fit, but also find that it's fun, makes you feel good, relieves stress, and helps you stay sociable.

Here are a few research findings on factors that influence people’s exercise mindset:

  • Being overweight. Many studies have shown that overweight or obese people tend to have negative thoughts and feelings about exercise, which may be both a cause and result of their weight gain. For instance, a small Chinese study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Obesity found that heavier young women were much more likely to have negative reactions to the idea of exercising than their lighter counterparts. This was seen in their answers on a questionnaire, as well as on functional MRI brain scans done when they looked at images of people exercising or were told to imagine themselves performing the activities.
  • Self-efficacy. In a 2014 study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Australian researchers looked at the relationship between personality traits and exercise and other health-related habits. They found that people who perceived they had control over their lives were more likely to exercise and take other healthy steps than those who felt that luck or fate largely dictated their lives.
  • Exercise-friendly genes. A 2013 Dutch study in Behavior Genetics involving more than 5,000 twins and siblings found a strong genetic component to attitudes about exercise.
  • Unconscious attitudes. A 2010 study from Penn State University found that students who had positive unconscious attitudes about physical activity (as measured by psychological testing) were more active over the course of a week (as measured by a pedometer). Besides leading to more exercise, a positive attitude increased incidental daily activities, such as using stairs instead of the elevator, taking the first available parking spot rather than hunting for one closer to the destination, and just moving around more.

Attitude adjustment?

If you are largely or totally inactive, you can benefit from an honest self-appraisal of your exercise mindset. Changing negative feelings, beliefs, and habits regarding exercise is hard, but rarely impossible. Granted, modern life, with all its labor-saving devices, may make it seem natural to avoid exertion. But it’s important to keep reminding yourself that from an evolutionary point of view, humans are wired to be active.

To get yourself going, try different types of exercise and activities until you find ones that are enjoyable, starting with brisk walking.Take it easy at first, then gradually make your workouts more challenging. If you especially like being outdoors, find an activity that you can do in a pleasurable environment. If you want more time with friends, try to enlist them for social activities like dancingor group walks. Your local Y or community health center is a good place to begin. If you feel uncomfortable exercising in a health club or other public space, start by working out at home or choose a solo activity like cycling.

Working with a coach or trainer can be a great motivator, as can using a pedometer or other wearable activity tracker. If exercise intimidates you, and you can’t overcome your fears about it, consider counseling to find strategies to help you overcome your psychological barriers to exercising.