7 Tips for Mastering the Mental Side of Getting Fit

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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7 Tips for Mastering the Mental Side of Getting Fit

Even world-class athletes sometimes need to remind themselves: Whatever big game or event they’re training for isn’t some remote one-off in the distant future. It’s a thing they need to train for every single day. Point being, competing at the highest level on earth isn’t a project with a neatly defined end date and goal. Instead, it’s an ongoing process, part of a long-term lifestyle.

“… being fit isn’t some magical, permanent state of being. It’s an act of constant becoming …”

It’s a useful piece of wisdom even if — maybe especially if — you’re not an elite athlete. All of us struggle with the mental side of being active, whether we’re neophytes looking to get in shape or seasoned trainers struggling with our latest challenge. It helps to remember that being fit isn’t some magical, permanent state of being. It’s an act of constant becoming, and it requires a certain discipline to make it a habit.

To better understand the mental side of getting (and staying) fit, we spoke with John Bartholomew, the director of the Exercise and Sport Psychology Laboratory at the University of Texas. He mentioned his daughter, who plays club soccer, as an example. “There’s always this sense with adolescents that now I’m gonna be done, that now I’m gonna be good,” he says. “One thing I talk to her about is that you’re not gonna be done getting better at soccer until you’re done playing soccer.” In other words, being active is about the journey, not the destination — and it’s a journey that, when done right, never truly ends.

Here is what else we learned, and how it might serve you as you go about setting — and keeping — your fitness goals. Which reminds us: Tip 1 is don’t set goals. We can explain …

1. GOALS ARE OVERRATED

“One of the concerns with the goals that people set for themselves is that if they don’t have a history of being active, they don’t set goals that are reasonable,” Bartholomew says. “One of the challenges people have when they begin a fitness program is that most of the feedback they receive is negative. It hurts. They’re sore. They’re hungrier, so they eat more and may even gain weight. There’s expense, they’re buying shoes.”

There’s more bad news: “The rewards, the positive aspects — these are all delayed. Improved mood. Weight loss. Health benefits. Those are things you don’t notice for two months, right? There is a large period of time where you need to be able to navigate these negative experiences.”

Bartholomew suggests focusing on the process and recognizing everyone struggles to adapt to a new routine. “You need to understand that the first six weeks are more uncomfortable than they are comfortable. The general response is to think that it’s about us. It’s helpful to know this is a common experience, this is normal.” Remembering that won’t make those six weeks easier, but it will help you stay focused on the good things on the other side of those painful days.

2. DON’T EXERCISE — TRAIN

What’s the difference? Exercise is disparate, untethered from an overall project or way of life. Training has, yes, a goal, but is also rewarding in and of itself. If you have a destination — running a 10K, for example — there’s an innate challenge there. “Therefore you’re gonna train and naturally [follow through], you can modify your training as you follow along,” Bartholomew says. “It’s not [typically] a huge expense [to sign up for such an event], but you’ve made a commitment that will help you find the drive to do those workouts.”

3. GET SOCIAL

Another way to ensure you stay motivated is to find other people to motivate you. It could be a running club or your friends and followers on MapMyRun, it could be a personal trainer, it could just be a buddy you work out with once or twice a week. But this person will help you hold yourself accountable — and potentially serve as an IRL role model for all your questions and concerns. “It gives you a resource, a support group,” Bartholomew says. “And I think it is helpful to have a living, breathing model for what you want to do. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s different when you’re part of a community — and this can even be a virtual community. There’s a real benefit to having that live group to give you that information and validation.”


READ MORE > DO VIRTUAL RUNNING PARTNERS MAKE YOU FASTER?


4. CHANGE YOUR HABITS

The reality is this: Going from no workout routine to having one is a lifestyle change. (So is going from your existing program to another, potentially more challenging one.) To ease the transition, you’ll want to remove as much friction as possible between you and working out. Bartholomew recommends working out in the morning, rather than at night — “and set out your workout clothes the night before.” (Some people we know even sleep in their workout gear.) “Setting aside time at the end of the day: That’s the easiest thing to put off,” Bartholomew says. “You can drive to the gym or drive home. Most people are gonna drive home.” He adds that any way you can structure your environment so that physical activity is the default choice is helpful. Some ideas we’ve tried: Keeping running shoes in your car. Finding a coffee shop or juice place near your gym for an post-workout treat. Running at a park or on a track near playground equipment you can use for pullups. (You know, assuming there aren’t kids already using it.)

5. DEFINE YOURSELF AS AN ACTIVE PERSON — EVEN IF IT’S MISERABLE OUTSIDE

“It’s not enough to like to be active and enjoy it,” Bartholomew says. “Because there are gonna be days where you don’t enjoy it. Everybody can go for a run on a beautiful spring day when it’s 75 and the sun is shining. You need to have some other form of motivation.” He recommends defining yourself as an active person, rain or shine. “It’s not like you skip work because it’s a cloudy day. And not just because you get paid — it’s because you have a view of who you are as a responsible person. Being active is a constant process, and that should be part of the fun. If that’s not part of the fun, that’s gonna be hard.”

6. RECOVERY IS A MENTAL GAME, TOO

While you might sometimes struggle with motivating yourself to get off the couch, you might also struggle with motivating yourself to stay out of the gym (or, perhaps more precisely, with forgiving yourself for taking a rest day). The important thing is to incorporate them into your overall plan, rather than make those decisions in the moment. “You need to pay attention to your body, but you need to structure how you recover,” Bartholomew says. “Off days are important. Slow runs are important. And that’s OK.”

You also need to be deliberate with how you get your rest each day. “Instead of thinking of it as powering down, think about it as what am I gonna shift my attention to,” Bartholomew says. “Doing mindful meditation would be an example. It’s an active pursuit as opposed to a passive one.”

7. CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE AS YOU CHANGE

We’re all aging, whether we like it or not. That might mean changing how you train, and calibrating your expectations accordingly. (This is true for pros or amateurs — for example, a starting pitcher might focus on throwing with finesse after losing some ticks on his or her fastball.) Bartholomew cites the example of a marathon runner who can’t beat the times of yesteryear — he or she might switch to triathlons instead, rather than lose motivation due to feelings of failure. The important thing is to keep at it, remembering that fitness isn’t a goal, it’s a lifelong process.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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18 responses to “7 Tips for Mastering the Mental Side of Getting Fit”

  1. Myla says:

    For the past 3 years I began a “fit before 40” campaign for myself. I don’t have and problems getting up and going to the gym and killing a workout. In fact I enjoy it. My problem is the diet aspect. I recently (at the begging of this year) really began to track my eating and have seen good results but then I revert back to my old habits of eating junk. Why is it I can’t get my mind wrapped around healthy eating when I live to go and put in a great workout??

    • Mac Duff says:

      Not an easy solution. I have done the same as far as tracking for awhile and then reverting to an extent. Educating yourself on the dangers and negative consequences of poor eating habits is one potential way to transform how you diet. Another option is to cut out certain food groups entirely and permanently – dairy comes to mind. Dairy serves no useful purpose. Any so-called nutritional benefits that can be derived from dairy products are much better sourced from non-dairy alternatives. After all of the pasteurization, homogenization and ___-ization that is done to most/all dairy products, the net result is something that the human body really cannot use optimally to sustain itself. You have to shift how you think about food groups and everything you’ve been taught in school and other settings in relation to the whole food pyramid or whatever shape educators are using to teach young minds these days.

    • Katie M. says:

      I would recommend seeing a behaviorist. As a dietitian, I have seen many individuals understand their cravings better when they talk about behaviors associated with the food. Really, when our brain sees certain foods that elicited the pleasure response in our body during previous occasions (could even be decades later), we seek the food even if we want to choose the healthier option. When you become more mindful (look into intuitive eating as well!) of why you are reverting back to old habits, you may even have enough will power to say no regardless of the situation. And also, think about how your hormones may be impacting these decisions. I always give into my cravings (in small amounts) during different times of the month, because I know if I don’t allow myself to enjoy it (we should never feel guilt or shame towards a food), I will continue to seek it to the point of consuming large, unhealthy amounts of the certain food.

  2. Mac Duff says:

    Overall, I found this article to be informative. Good job. Pursuing physical fitness is a lifestyle with no end-game. If you want to be physically fit (however you define that individually), you will never reach the top of the mountain. You will constantly strive to maintain even when you achieve whatever ‘physically fit’ means to you.

  3. Chad Harrelson says:

    Now tell me how to master the mental side of stopping smoking…..I’m a failure at this about every two hours. Even though I can’t breathe. 🙁

    • Jim B says:

      Find someone dying of lung cancer. Watch them go. worked for me. chew gum.

    • tanklet says:

      Ok. I quit 2x’s. 1st time 2 years. Been stopped 30 years now. Allow 2 cigs a day for two weeks. Then cold turkey. Pick a low stress time. Each day gets easier. You will dream about them. Avoid people and places with smokers or you’ll try to suck up second hand smoke and it will kick in addiction. 1st time I cold turkey I cried all day one day. It’s ok, you don’t die from it. A little discomfort and moods won’t kill you. Just focus on how great Freedom will feel when done. You will cough up lots of mess. That lasts about 2 weeks. Second time I started smoking because of severe stress. My husband helped me quit that time. I was only smoking a couple cigs a day. He met me at the door every day when I got home and demanded to know how many I had. He sniffed my breath to check. So I was able to quit that time, too. Been quit for good 30 years. If you live with smokers go stay with someone else who doesn’t.

      • Chad Harrelson says:

        I smoke over a pack a day. I have 2 cigs with my cup of coffee as soon as I open my eyes.

        • Gardenhoe says:

          I smoked about a pack a day from the time I was 16 years old – I am 55 now. I quit once for about maybe 6 months using nicotine patch but stress led me back to smoking. January 2017 – I finally quit using Wellbutrin I think it was. I wanted Chantex but doc gave me this other drug instead. Did it help? Maybe initially – like first 2 weeks or so. I stopped taking it after a month because it did not kill my cravings so my thought was what’s the point of taking it. However, after NOT smoking for a month or so, I just kept thinking – I got through the worst of it so I just have to keep moving forward even though I still had strong cravings. So here we are – March 2018 and I am still nicotine free and still trying to lose weight (I gained about 15 lbs). It is hard. I still crave smoking and my husband and I joke about how there are moments I could go right back to smoking. He knows I still have big triggers – the craziest things like going to the airport and standing outside smoking before a flight. I could start again tomorrow – but I won’t. It’s been over a year and I won’t throw away this accomplishment. You have to remember that every day you don’t smoke is an accomplishment. I am so happy to be a non-smoker but let me walk past someone smoking and bam! I am ready to light up. Perhaps due to smoking for so many years it will take a good few years for the craving to subside but listen – YOU CAN DO THIS. It will be hard but with each passing day, you will know you are accomplishing the best thing you could ever do for yourself. Want a smoke? Walk. Chew gum. Jolly Rancher suckers helped. And as people said – it is so important to stay busy. I treated myself to a FitBit to keep me motivated to keep moving (even though I’ve been a walker my whole life). This has been my experience. Do what works for you. Try some of the medications out there to help you quit. Take up carpentry. Get a puppy. Get a horse. Train to run a marathon – that will motivate you. Do whatever it takes to keep your mind focused and occupied – and this may keep changing. Yep – I still miss my morning coffee and a smoke but listen buddy – put it behind you and look forward. It is hard – but worth the effort. My very best wishes to you.

    • Kathryn Flores says:

      It’s not easy, but it can be done. I have been on chantrix and now just take it day by day. My first two weeks was horrible I cried, I tried reasoning one cig with myself. But I really wanted it. my mother passed away when I was 30 and she smoked most of her life, my dad too and he died of Throat Cancer. I was tired after 20 some years of smoking, I walked into a store with my two kids and tears in my eyes and a cashier told me she had quit 20 years ago and gave me a rubber band to put around my wrist. I did that for 3 days till I didn’t think about it all the time anymore. Now I haven’t smoked for going on 2 months and go to the gym at least 3 times a week. I eat and drink a lot of water and you will def. eat more. You have to keep really busy with your time don’t sit around you will think about it more. Wish you luck and know you can do it.

      • Your Friend says:

        keep an ash tray with burnt cig ashes & every time you get the urge, put your nose in that ash tray and take a good deep smell. that is what your breath smells like to a non smoker.
        (What you do today determines your tomorrow.)

      • Chad Harrelson says:

        I tried Chantix twice. It worked until I ran out. After not having Chantix for 2 weeks, the craving returned. Plus I live with another smoker so twcie as hard. Doctor told me there is an 87% failure rate if you live with another smoker.

    • Carmen Wheatley says:

      After having chronic bronchitis and struggling to breathe, despite only be 43. I decided it was time to stop. That and the fact that they were going to double the insurance premiums of employees that used tobacco. After a few weeks I was okay, I went cold turkey. Never picked up another cigarette. I fell much better and hardly ever get sick. Wish I knew what you could do. I just relied on will power.

      • Chad Harrelson says:

        Yeah my will power is no good when it comes to nicotine. I somke a pack pus a day. It’s hard to even cut back a few cigs.

        • TiminBrandon says:

          After 51 years my mom stopped smoking with the 3-step patch. Her doctor said he wouldn’t treat her for pneumonia (5th time) if she didn’t stop, and gave her the first week’s supply. The patch stopped the nicotine craving, but the “habit” part was difficult for both of us! It took her four months, but she’s been quit for 24 years (she’s 89) and can’t stand to be around cigarettes now. Yes, she has COPD, but she’s a lot healthier otherwise. You can do it, too.

    • Toni Skinner says:

      My ex-partner died at 48, because of smoking.
      Need any other reason.

  4. Tanklet says:

    I like this app called stupid simple macros. You click an icon every time you eat something. It tracks calories, fat, carbs protein. The more I use it the easier it is to stay on track. It is free but has lots of ads. The better version is a one time $9.99 charge. I had to stop cooking recipes and eating out with friends. I use lots of spices and keep it simple. I just google my foods first and pick then icon closest. Or if you don’t want to list your foods at all you can just click carb, protein, fat icons only and tally micros that way. It is cumbersome until you get it customized to what you usually eat. They have great tech support and email back quickly. You can add values for your recipes. The other thing I do is I buy large pack of chicken breasts and julienne them. I cook them then divide up and add different sauces. Then I freeze them in 3 oz meat portions with 1/4 cup or less sauce. This keeps me from cheating. When I need a quick meal I pop in microwave and dump over canned drained veggies. I like getting my fitness pal emails but their calorie counting is too cumbersome and sabotaged me. So I quit logging with them.

  5. disqus_xQFuvex8is says:

    Re ‘Don’t Exercise, Train’ — the problem I have here is that all the ‘training’ things seem to be running related. Some of us are just not runners. Do you have concrete suggestions of training-related events/goals that aren’t running?

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