I bring up language a lot to my clients because the way that we talk and think about things greatly impacts the likelihood that we will—or will not—do them. The words we choose can act like a barrier to entry. I’d much rather “take my dogs for a walk” than “go outside and stand around while my dogs decide where to poop, then pick it up in a small plastic bag and carry it around with me.”
The same is true for how we talk about training. The words we use establish expectations about the experience we are about to have. One of my jobs as a coach is to subvert client expectations that are not useful to meeting their goals. So “deadlifts” becomes “picking up heavy things.” We don’t “work out,” we “play with kettlebells.” My clients don’t “go on diets,” they “change their eating habits.” They don’t “lift,” they “practice.” And most importantly, they don’t “screw up,” “suck,” “or “fail”; they “learn.”
The Jerk in Your Head
One of the most important lessons from the science of Exercise Psychology is the connection between thoughts and emotions, and emotions and behavior. Cousins and Gillis (2005) showed that how people talk to themselves about exercise not only impacted their exercise adherence, but interventions that positively changed the language that people use to talk about exercise actually improved their adherence to an exercise plan.
If you had a coworker who came over to your work buddy’s desk every time your friend forgot to run spell-check on an email and loudly called him a screw up, you’d probably think the guy was a jerk and your buddy would probably start looking for another job that didn’t involve as much emailing. And how long would it be before you confronted the jerk, reported him to HR, or spit in his coffee? Now how do you think berating yourself for not making it to the gym 6 times a week is going to impact your progress?
The Two Questions
One of the ways that I seek to improve my clients’ attitudes about food choices and exercise is by making it a habit. I ask my clients to ask themselves two questions every day:
By actively reflecting on your progress towards your health and fitness goals, you can stay focused, stay motivated, and keep moving forward when you might have otherwise been frustrated or gotten thwarted by a tiny slip up like a birthday party or not making it to the gym on a Saturday.
Change is hard because people want the familiar. Familiar words, familiar habits, familiar experiences. But 100% of people who want to change their bodies need to change something about their habits. Familiar words means familiar habits which means familiar outcomes.
So if you experiment with asking yourself The Two Questions and think, “Oh, that’s not what I’m used to?” just ask yourself what I ask my own clients: “And how’s what you’ve been doing been workin’ out for ya?”
Coach Stevo is the nutrition and sport psychology consultant at San Francisco CrossFit. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and is finishing his MA in Applied Sport Psychology at John F. Kennedy University. His specialty is habit-based training and he contributed to Intervention by Dan John in 2012.
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