Exercise is really good for us. It has been proven to have physical, emotional and mental health benefits in both the short and the long term. If I had to recommend just one thing to improve feelings of depression and anxiety, exercise would be it! Our physical body affects our mental state, and the chemical changes that take place after exercise gives your brain and mood a boost in the way that anti-depressant medications do. Most people agree that after they do exercise, they feel much better – more relaxed, better mood. So why is sticking to an exercise program so hard?
One way or another, in order to stick to an exercise program long term, you need to be able to see yourself as an ‘exerciser’. This means you’re the type of person who would prioritise exercise over other activities (whether your exercise is yoga or a marathon).
Now, if just reading that sentence makes you tense up or think ‘well that’ll never be me’, then your identity, your sense of who you are, is holding you back from sticking to an exercise plan long term. Here’s a few examples of how identity can hold you back.
If you identify as being a good mum, you might not be motivated to exercise if to do so means leaving your young child in the care of someone else.
If you see yourself as a relaxed, good-time person, then making the commitment to get up early and take a focussed, disciplined approach to exercise will be very difficult for you.
If you see yourself as someone who needs to have company all the time, then you’ll never be able to stick to exercise unless you bring a friend with you – and that means your fitness levels will always be decided by someone else.
How To Get Around the Identity Blocks
If you suspect that your picture of yourself might be contributing to your trouble sticking with an exercise program, what can you do? Try out the ideas below.
Find Your Exceptions
It’s important to remember that your brain loves to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with your current picture of yourself. If you don’t see yourself as someone who enjoys exercise, then your brain will collect memories of times that exercising was difficult or when you didn’t do it, and forget about your successes. Aargh! The way around that is to make your brain deliberately pay attention to those times when we you do exercise already. For example, you might walk to the local shops because they’re so close. But you could drive, so your walking now counts as proof you choose exercise. Same for walking to public transport, picking up small children multiple times a day or walking to get outside at lunch time. These activities all have other motivations for engaging in them other than exercise (convenience, parenting preferences, need to be escape work), but they still get you up and moving. Acknowledging that you choose to move more than you have to at some times will help to start to shift your identity.
You can also add to this list any memories or past successes you have had with exercise. Even if they were pre-kids, or back when you were a teenager or child, getting yourself to recall these memories and seeing them as part of who you are all contributes to changing your identity.
For more detail about this idea, check out my recent blog post about exception questions.
Make it More Like You
This tip is often mentioned when I read articles in the Sunday paper about how to set up a fitness routine – You need to pick an exercise you actually enjoy. So you might not be able to see yourself as a gym junkie, but hiking, with all the natural surrounds and solitude, may feel more like ‘you’. You might hate cycling lycra but already hang out in yoga pants. Choosing something that is more closely aligned with your current identify means you don’t have to shift your mindset as far, making the process easier.
Once you have some ideas about the very small ways you already exercise, and you’ve chosen an activity that sounds like you, the next step is to take it slow. ‘Make it so easy you can’t say no’ (with full credit to James Clear’s article here, where I first read this phrase).
To start to shift your identity is a slow process. You can’t change your ideas about yourself overnight. And your actions need to reflect this. Although we often hear about the people who do manage to make huge shifts in their life after a snap decision, the research shows they are really in the minority. Most people who try to make big changes in their life fail. They just can’t cope with the shift in identity, routines and mindset required. Don’t feel bad about this! Just understand it, and use it to your advantage by planning to make small changes.
It’s much easier to feel ‘motivated’ to do 5 squats while you wait for the kettle to boil than it is to feel ‘motivated’ to put on your exercise clothes, head out to the garage, and spend 30 minutes doing a body weight routine. So you start with the kitchen squats. And this then trains your brain to look for other opportunities to exercise when you’re waiting. And then, later, when you get a bigger block of time, it’s more natural to decide to use that time to exercise. Because now you see yourself as someone who uses ‘free’ time to exercise instead of checking your phone, or the cupboard. You’re in the habit of exercising when you can. And so you do.
The great advantage of this method is that it’s easy! You never need to feel hugely motivated. You just make simple changes that over time, bring you to your goal, without it ever feeling that difficult.
Understand Your Feelings
When we challenge our sense of identity, we often feel really uncomfortable. It can be very scary having something important taken away, and your sense of who you are is very important. Who you think you are determines your choices, the types of people you find interesting, and is part of why those who love you, love you. No wonder it’s scary to change this – what will happen to your relationships and hobbies?
If you’ve always seen yourself as relaxed but you want to start an intense exercise routine, there will be fears around who you would become if you actually stuck to your plan and reached your goal. These fears are tricky because they aren’t obvious. You don’t go out to exercise and think ‘You know what’s stopping me? I’m afraid if I do this I won’t be a relaxed person anymore and then my friends and family won’t love me because they love that I’m relaxed. Who am I anyway?’ You go out to exercise and just feel uneasy. It doesn’t feel right. And you won’t feel ‘motivated’ to do it.
So it’s important to understand this aspect of change, and to allow for it. Know that what you’re doing is challenging your ideas of who you are. Understand that this challenge will feel uncomfortable and that expecting you’ll feel motivated under these conditions is unrealistic. You won’t feel motivated to engage in your exercise until you’ve really embraced exercising as part of who you are, and that just takes time for your brain to adjust.
Go into exercising not expecting to have good feelings, but to keep going with it despite how you feel. If you’re clear on what you want from exercise and why it matters to you, and you’re starting small, and choosing an exercise that does roughly fit with your ideas of who you are, then those uncomfortable feelings won’t last. But they won’t leave until you take action either! You just have to go through that period of discomfort while your identity adjusts. Persist: it’s worth it.
What help uncovering what aspects of your identity are holding you back from exercising? Book an appointment with me and find out!
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.