How to think yourself fit

Tom Fortune
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Thinkstock images
If you're suddenly going nowhere with your fitness or weight loss programme, it could be your head that needs a workout, not your body. We speak to personal trainers and psychologists for tips and tricks that will help you think yourself into better shape

We spend endless hours working out to improve our performance at the gym, boost stamina and reach our ideal weight. But without razor sharp mental fitness, all of the above will remain frustratingly out of reach.

"Our mind plays an essential role when it comes to getting fit and losing weight," says fitness trainer Gavin Walsh.

"To succeed in anything, your head has to be in a good place. Even the best exercise and nutrition programme won't help you stay in shape long term if you haven't accepted the necessary lifestyle changes.

"Many people start an exercise programme and very often get results in the short term. Unfortunately, however, many of the same people end up falling off the health and fitness wagon because they haven't mentally prepared for the changes and challenges that are required to maintain their new found health and fitness. In essence, they end up sabotaging themselves and going back to the way they were."

Pain versus pleasure
One of the reasons why the mind 'sabotages' our plans to get fitter, slimmer and stronger is the perception that exercise is something that is, for many of us, not an enjoyable experience. Psychologist Dr Felix Economakis says: "The mind prevents us from getting in shape depending on the associations it has made.

Essentially we are designed to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. If we associate exercising with effort, tedium, boredom, then we will be activating the parts of our brain that seek to avoid pain.

"On the other hand, pain can be a motivator, but the effects tend to be short term once the immediate threat has gone. For example, some women might be motivated to lose weight to avoid bikini hell, or to fit into a dress, but after that event, motivation plummets."

What you can do about it
So how do you go about reinventing yourself as someone who no longer struggles to work up the motivation to work up a sweat? According to Walsh, it's all a question of finding an exercise that you actually enjoy. "I have trained countless people who are not keen, or have lost the will, to exercise. Not a lot of people do enjoy it. It's the results that people want most of the time, not the actual exercise.

"Unfortunately, there is no getting around it. If you want to be healthy, fit and slim, you have to accept that exercise is part of the equation. But you don't have to hit the gym. You might find it easier to exercise in groups. Whether that be spinning, dance or a fitness bootcamp, is down to individual taste. Finding something that you won't dread going to every week means you are more likely to stay in shape for a long, long time."

Dr Economakis, meanwhile, stresses the need to focus on positive associations, not the negative ones. He says: "People who are 'mentally fit' have learnt to link healthy activities with positive associations that motivate them to move forward.

Pleasure becomes self-perpetuating. For instance, they focus on the feelings of looking better, feeling better, and making progress in the gym. The gym should become associated with essential 'me time', a loving act for oneself, looking great and the feelings of pride you get when showing off your ultra-fit body.

"We also need to avoid the term 'exercise', which sounds too much like 'work'. Instead, refer to it as 'raising activity levels'. Not everyone wants to lose weight in the gym, but they will remain motivated with other activities, such as dancing or taking scenic walks. Find what you enjoy, and do more of it, or switch associations to make them more appetising - that way you'll fire your motivation and pleasure buttons."

Find a balance
It's also important that you don't feel frightened about your fitness. A relaxed attitude is essential, and no trainer should ever use scare tactics, says Walsh. "I never, ever use this method, but I am quite strict with my clients about their exercise and nutrition programme. A fine balance between the two has to be struck. My job is to get someone from A to B as quickly as possible, so I need to make sure they're following my programme to guarantee results.

However, if I had someone who wanted to throw in the towel I would sit them down and use the softly, softly approach. Something is obviously not right. Once we know what the issue is we can then try to work on a solution so that they can continue to improve."

Finally, our experts agree that the most important step to achieving tip-top fitness upstairs is to make, and stick to, a specific set of goals. Walsh concludes: "Too many women say they want to get fit and lose weight, but never give themselves a deadline or a target to work towards. Not having this goal means that being fit and slim always stays at arm's length.

Writing your goals and telling close friends and family puts pressure on you to achieve them. They can then be there to give you a telling off if you're slacking, or encouragement - which in itself will give your mental fitness a huge boost."

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