Column: Overcoming the ‘mental’ challenge of exercising

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Commentary by Tom Weesner

When I was in fourth grade, we had a bicycle rodeo at my elementary school. For those of you who remember these, it was a fun competition involving decorating your bike and lots of different maneuvers. My favorite was trying to ride around in a circle inside painted lines on the playground. I loved my Schwinn Lemon Peeler and spent hours practicing the different skills.

Here is the thing: That was exercise and it was fun. It was learning, practicing, improving, feeling good about doing things better each time. It was about enjoyment. And to some degree, it was about success. Exercise was child’s play! I didn’t think about it, I just played and asked, “When do I have to be home?”

Our brains are very powerful. The way we think and what we believe influences how we feel and what we do. When did we forget exercise can be fun or called something different? Let me give you an example:

My doctor tells me to get some exercise. And deep down, I know she’s right. But immediately, I begin to have thoughts like these: “Oh shoot, I don’t even like exercise. Exercise takes so much time. The time I spend exercising is time that I can’t spend on other things I enjoy. I hate getting hot and sweaty. Exercise is boring. I just want to play baseball. I’m not in shape enough to exercise. What will other people think of me?”

Honestly, if this is what my brain is telling me, it is going to be hard to exercise despite knowing that it is good for me. So, how do I get myself to do something I really don’t want to do?

First, I decide that my brain is giving me information that is not helpful. It is keeping me from committing to the healthy lifestyle I desire. My thoughts and beliefs are stopping me, so challenging those beliefs and creating a new narrative can get me moving.

I begin to build that new narrative by defining what exercise can mean to me, not what my brain automatically thinks. I might even stop using the word exercise and ask myself what physical skill I want to get better at, such as going up stairs without pain or having more stamina on the baseball diamond. I think about fun things I like to do and give myself a very simple goal to work toward.   

With my new narrative, I’m “doing fun things” versus “exercising” to feel better today and down the road. I surround myself with folks who care about me and support me on this journey. I also remind myself of things I already know — that just moving, or lifting, or stretching a little bit each day becomes routine, and suddenly, it is something I do without thinking. Once I start moving, I feel better and can pat myself on the back and tell myself, ‘Good job!’

Tom Weesner is president of Motion 4 Life Fitness, which offers specialized training for adults 50 and older.

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