Getting fitter really isn’t complicated: we all know what to do, or can Google it. The hard part is actually doing it. More often than not, the muscle that fails first is the one between our ears; sooner or later our motivation atrophies, and so does the rest of us.
Stop bicep-curling unthinkingly and flex your cortex instead. FashionBeans has picked the well-developed brains of some top sports psychologists, authors and trainers for some mental tricks that will help your resolve stay as strong as your new physique. A healthy mind in a healthy body, as the Roman poet Juvenal said (except, you know, in Latin).
And yes, we know the brain is not technically a muscle.
1. Put Up The Goalposts
Targets are a lot easier to hit when you know where they are.
“You need to set a clear, measurable goal,” says Jeremy Snape, former international cricketer turned psychologist and founder of high-performance consultancy Sporting Edge, which coaches businessmen and the England rugby team alike. “‘Getting fitter’ isn’t good enough: it needs to be an amount of weight lost, or a time or distance in exercise terms.”
Vague, indefinable goals might seem less daunting than, say, doing a marathon. But with no plan of how to get there – because you don’t know where you’re going – or way of measuring your progress, you’ll just end up losing motivation in the long run.
2. Break Them Down Again
How do you eat an elephant? By dividing it into bite-sized chunks.
“Imagine a pyramid with your major goal at the top,” says Snape. “Below that peak are your smaller ‘process’ goals. So if the intent is to ‘get fitter’ then you need measurables which show that, such as a set weight, body fat, strength or flexibility: components that deliver the goal.”
Then underneath those components are their basic building blocks. “For example, to lose body fat, you might need to limit sugar or calorie intake, eat before 6.30pm at night or go to the gym three times a week in the morning before work,” says Snape.
This widest part of the pyramid provides you with achievable daily goals – and, crucially, reassurance that you are working towards your loftiest aim, which will help you stay on track: “You can’t hit your target on day one but you can tick off all the behaviours.”
Rome wasn’t built in that timeframe, and it’s a safe bet that the pyramids weren’t either.
3. Prepare To Fail
Now that you’re on the wagon, you need to stay there even when it gets wobbly. “Think about when you are going to be most vulnerable to falling off your plan, then build in contingencies,” says Snape.
For most of us, that’s when we’re hungry. “Take healthy snacks to the office to avoid stress eating and drink water before a meal to ensure you don’t overeat,” suggests Snape. “Visual reminders can help, such as putting a sticker on the fridge, or on the laptop that you use to order takeaways, to nudge you towards healthier choices.”
Another big willpower crunch point is when we’re tired: “Get your gym gear out the night before so that you don’t have the hassle of finding it in the morning, when you’re looking for an excuse not to go.”
4. Add Friends – Online If Necessary
Not only will the shame of letting somebody else down make you more likely to stick with your programme, they can also make you exercise harder – especially if they’re fitter than you. One study by Kansas State University found that a training partner can increase the length and intensity of sessions by up to 200 per cent. (Studies have also shown that being around attractive people works.)
“The social aspect can be a strong motivational technique,” confirms Becs Gentry, a group trainer at swish health club Equinox, who also leads free Nike+ Run Club meets at the mighty swoosh’s London stores.
They don’t have to be real people either. Fitness apps like Nike+ Run Club let you compare workouts with friends and randoms to harness that social – or competitive – element even when you can’t sync diaries. Another study found that subjects who published their weight loss results on Twitter lost more than those who kept it to themselves.
Or just tell people about your goal. Either way, the point is to be accountable to someone other than yourself.
5. Pen Workouts Into Your Diary
This might sound a bit anally retentive. But when things get hectic, exercise is the thing that gives. You tell yourself that you can go to the gym anytime. So you end up never going.
Again, apps like Nike+ Run Club will facilitate this, and even let you add notes. “It’s great for tracking your progress and maintaining motivation,” says Gentry. “For example, if you went out for your run but you were not feeling great, slept badly or had a really busy day, you can input that.”
However you do it, scheduling your workouts makes them a non-negotiable in your mind, like going to the dentist. Then when people try to fill your diary with other stuff that conflicts, you simply reply that you can’t do that time. You don’t have to tell them why, if exercise doesn’t seem like an important enough reason. After all, it’s only your health.
6. Be Full Of Beans
Part of the reason we find it so hard to motivate ourselves to exercise is that our primitive ‘lizard’ brains are programmed to avoid exerting effort unless absolutely necessary. When we didn’t know where the next meal was coming from, it didn’t make sense from a survival perspective to burn through all our scarce resources.
Where most sports psychology focuses on increasing motivation, Professor Samuele Marcora, director of research at Kent University’s School of Sport and Exercise Science, is investigating ways to decrease the effort involved. “One way is to consume caffeine beforehand,” he says. “It literally reduces the amount of brain activity required to exercise, so it feels easier.”
Marcora’s other tried-and-tested strategies include listening to music, which you probably already do, and positive self-talk (e.g. “Feeling good” or “Push through this”), which you probably don’t but maybe should.
As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
7. Suck It Up
Another way to make exercise feel easier is, paradoxically, by focusing on how hard it is. Or in other words, ’embracing the suck’.
“Reframe the discomfort of the workout as the very purpose of it rather than a negative that you merely put up with,” says Matt Fitzgerald, author of How Bad Do You Want It: Mastering The Psychology Of Mind Over Muscle. “Consciously accepting that it is going to be tough and challenging yourself to conquer it makes the workout an end in itself rather than just a means, and also makes the discomfort more bearable.
Research has shown that ‘embracing the suck’ reduces perceived effort and increases performance.”
8. Change Your Mind
Ultimately, it’s not just your body that you need to transform.
“Maintaining this new lifestyle will only be possible if you change your perception of who you are,” says Snape. “If you view your regime as a test to get through until that beach holiday or run, you may slide back after. If however you start to view yourself as a healthy, active person, then these behaviours will become your norm and be reinforced by how you feel and look. This is your real goal.”