How your mindset impacts exercise
They say the key to making exercise sustainable is finding an activity you enjoy.
While I was more than a little late to the party, I finally found my “thing” two years ago in the form of yoga.
I always feel calmer after doing yoga. I attribute my improved mood to the fact I’ve had a chance to focus on something physical (rather than on the flurry of thoughts that crowd my brain).
Now new research points to a further reason why I feel better after those downward-facing dogs: Because I believe I will.
Published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine online in August this year, research showed that people who have a positive mindset about sport derive more psychological and physiological benefits from exercising.
For the study, researchers asked 76 men and women aged between 18 and 32 about their mood and well-being. Participants were then asked to cycle for 30 minutes.
Those who approached exercise with a positive mindset reported improved mood and reduced anxiety after.
Of course, such findings could be a placebo effect. As in, if you think exercise will make you happier afterwards, it will.
I often wonder if that’s the case for me. After all, I sometimes only have about ten minutes to squeeze in a yoga session (I’m not even sure if ten minutes counts as a ‘session’), and yet I still feel more relaxed after.
Kusal Goonewardena, leading physiotherapist and founder of Elite Akademy, thinks there’s more to it than that.
He says the importance of mindset when it comes to exercise can’t be overstated.
Mind over matter
It influences many variables, such as how hard you exercise, how easily you give up, and whether you’re willing to keep persevering when the going gets tough.
If you start your workout with a negative mindset, thinking things like, “There’s no point to this” or “I’m not going to feel better after,” you’re more likely to put in a half-hearted effort and turn such thoughts into reality.
But if you exercise with a positive attitude, Goonewardena is convinced you will gain better results, both physically and mentally.
A positive mindset will also create a positive reinforcement loop — whereby you work harder, feel “rewarded” after, and are therefore more likely to exercise again.
Psychologist and researcher Hendrik Mothes, from the University of Freiburg’s Department of Sport Science, agrees that our feelings toward exercise influence our outcomes.
“…Our belief in how much we will benefit from physical activity has a considerable effect on our well-being in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says.
Just don’t confuse a ‘positive mindset’ with blind optimism, warns Goonewardena. Assuming a workout will be easy, or that you won’t encounter roadblocks such as injury or illness is not only unrealistic, it’s also unhelpful.
Instead, Goonewardena says you need to be positive while developing a “bigger mindset”; one that is both resilient and focused on the overall journey.
But if you don’t believe working out will bring you great rewards, don’t lose hope.
The study also found that manipulating participants’ expectations (which the researchers did by showing some of them a short film on the health benefits of cycling) improved part of their outcomes.
To develop a more positive — and resilient — mindset towards exercising, Goonewardena recommends the following:
Allow yourself to ‘start small’
The biggest barrier to exercise is getting started, says Goonewardena. So, instead of only working out when you have ‘enough’ time, remind yourself it’s okay to do a short workout. “Even small changes can make a big difference if you stay with them.”
Be flexible in your approach
Expect roadblocks and setbacks. Instead of seeing them as disasters, view them as “part of the journey”.
If the task seems overwhelming – for example, training for a marathon– break it down into smaller, achievable goals. “This can give you a big psychological boost.”
Even choosing a simple statement, such as: ‘Each day I am a better athlete’ can help. “Such affirmations have been proven to be very powerful when done over a period of time.”
Find a similarly minded workout buddy
Pick a workout buddy who’s on the same page as you. “Having a workout buddy… who shares a positive mindset can push you to new heights.”
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