Exercise is enjoyable and, if you don’t think so, you’ve probably been brainwashed into using it as a means to an end and completely missed the pleasure that can be had from movement itself. We’ve all read the articles meant to motivate us and listened to advice telling us that we should exercise because it is ‘fat burning’ or ‘muscle toning’ or ‘stamina building’ or that it protects us from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes. We know all this is true but none of it makes exercise the fun it’s supposed to be, it just makes us feel guilty for not exercising! Self-discipline, we’re told again and again, is the key and we should endure the pain to reap the payoffs — usually the admiration we’ll get for weight loss or toned muscles. But most of us spend so much of our day working hard so, when it comes to free time, the last thing we want to do is work even harder!
For those less concerned about status and who naturally put our own comfort before what people think of us, we’re not likely to give up all our free time and comfort to commit to a heavily disciplined life of uncomfortable exercise. Even less motivating, the advice tells us that to get any benefit from exercise, we have to run/walk/swim at high intensity, pushing ourselves to a point of pain and discomfort. So we struggle, choking for breath, sweating in agony. Then we suffer excruciating stiffness and pain the next day. It’s no wonder we find it hard to keep up!
What if you were to change your mind about exercise — to love it for it’s own sake, for the buzz, for the feeling of movement and the life force that exercise brings to you in the moment you’re doing it? Like Tara Benson, a recent exercise convert.
“When I’m running, I feel like I’m an animal,” says Tara, who was sedentary for 20 years before getting back in touch with the urge to move that she’d felt as a child. “The rhythmic movement of my muscles is intensely enjoyable. It’s irresistible. I feel like I’m alive when I’m running.”
Swimmer Kerry Potter, also an exercise newbie, says: “I get into the pool and then into the exercise and my mind goes into a world of its own and I look at the clock and I’ve been swimming for 45 minutes and I feel like I’ve only just got in the water. I used to dread exercise and now I actually get excited about it.”
So how do you follow in Tara and Kerry’s footsteps and change from couch potato into someone who gets excited about exercise? The answer is mental rehearsal or visualisation. Believe it or not, the best way to get into an exercise routine is to sit on the couch!
Piles of research, shows that mental imagery improves performance and enjoyment. One study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning even suggests that a certain type of mental imagery can actually increase your physical strength.
Olympic champions and professional athletes have used mental rehearsal techniques for decades. Not only is it one of the most widely accepted techniques in sports psychology, it’s supported by scientific research. All you have to do is sit quietly for a few minutes every day and imagine yourself exercising, feeding positive messages to your brain. If you can create the feeling of the enjoyment of exercise in your imagination, this builds up the natural motivation to actually get up and do it. It creates a real desire to exercise.
How to do mental rehearsal
Not everyone is good at visualisation to start with but the more you do it, the better you will get. There’s no correct way. But it is important that you relax and get into a peaceful and quiet minded state and sit in stillness. Set an alarm for five minutes if this helps. Then create a vivid mental picture of yourself running, swimming or whatever your choice of exercise is. Try to use all of your senses and every bit of your focus and concentration to bring to mind a full picture, including sounds, smells, the rushing of air and the feel of your muscles moving. Imagine you’re bringing enough air into your lungs to feel good and feel the freedom of the movement.
Imagine the exercise is easy, your limbs are oiled and your lungs are capable. Get in touch with the exhilaration, or the rush, that moving your body can bring. The most important thing is to mentally ‘feel’ your muscles moving and bring about an emotional reaction and to try to intensify and focus on these feelings.
If you make your only goal to do this vivid mental rehearsal for 5 to 10 minutes each day, this might be all you have to do to become an exercise lover. Moving on to actually exercising isn’t difficult after rehearsal, especially if you are mindful and relaxed while you’re exercising and if you breathe properly. After a few days of visualisations, try mindful walking.
How to: Mindful Walking
Take no less than half an hour to do this walk. Walk at your own pace but really focus on how your whole body is feeling. If your attention drifts away from this, gently bring it back again. Don’t strain to keep focused, just do it kindly and gently. There’s no need to force yourself to get uncomfortably out of breath, just walk. If you haven’t exercised for a long time, you might find it an effort at first. If you feel lethargic, just keep ambling along at a comfortable pace and try to sum up some pleasurable energy and take longer but easy and unstrained breaths to bring more oxygen (fuel for your muscles) into your lungs.
Bring to mind the visualisation and conjure up the same emotions. Feel your muscles tensing and relaxing, like when you have a luxurious stretch first thing in the morning. After fifteen minutes or so, turn around and start to make your way home. Your muscles will be warming up and you might feel inclined to step up the pace a bit, if you don’t, that’s fine too. This is about going with what your body wants to do, no more. Follow these easy steps and you’ll find your attitiude towards exercise changing and that moving will become addictive and hard to resist.