Thoughts that go through my head when I'm cycling... No. 57Have I turned the oven off?
Which way is the wind coming from?
Did I charge my phone?
Where am I?
|I ride therefore I am|
Alongside these deeply philosophical thoughts, I also often find myself wondering why there aren't more of us out on the road, getting our hearts pumping in the great outdoors.
We reap so many benefits from moving more: improved sleep, better mental health, more energy, feeling fitter, increased focus, etc. If exercise was a pill, we'd all be taking it and saving the NHS millions.
Over 50% of people who begin an exercise programme stop within the first 3 months.
Seeing this statistic made me ruminate.
I know my own relationship with exercise has taken a hit in the past - times when I've felt less motivated to put in the effort, despite the fact I knew I'd feel better if I did it.
What exactly is it that gets in the way?
Consider the gym membership...We join. We buy the gear. We're all gee'd up. We go twice, possibly three times, and then... we stop.
We might not even know why. And then after a while the idea fades, until sufficient time elapses and we can try it again as though it was something new.
All this points to the fact that while we might not be that great at getting our kit on, we are totally awesome at rationalising reasons to avoid it.
Let's call this the Barrier Method.A bit like contraception for the brain, the Barrier Method is a great and highly effective way of not getting fit. It's where the barriers we put up stop the seed of an idea (getting in shape for example) fertilising the rest of our mind into making it actually happen. Here's a man practising it...
|I just haven't got time.|
Don't want to go to the gym? Well, we are really rather busy, actually.
Rather not head out for a run? Who would, in this weather? And besides, who's got the energy?
That cycle ride? Sounds a bit too sweaty for me, all that lycra. And isn't cycling dangerous?
Most of us have been guilty of putting up some version of these barriers at one time or another. Or, some limiting inner voice seduces us into thinking we're not allowed to be fit because we're not part of that group - we shouldn't be doing this; it isn't for us; looking in shape is something that happens to other people. "I'm just not that sporty", etc, etc, etc.
Research shows it's what we tell ourselves that makes the difference.A study by Allied Dunbar found that thinking "I'm just not the sporty type" is one of the main reasons we don't carry on exercising once we've started.
In fact, this emotional barrier is second only to a lack of time, or at least a perceived lack of time - though it's amazing how much room in our schedule we can find to watch tv, read the paper or sit in the pub. All of which I really enjoy doing, by the way.
There is a deeply ingrained belief that we need to focus intently on relaxing in our spare time, to make the most of it, The contradiction here is that tuning in to our body is relaxing in itself, and can make us feel considerably calmer than lying on the sofa watching telly. In this sense exercise can be a form of meditation.
Part of the trouble seems to be that as a nation, we don't traditionally view exercise as a relaxing thing to do.
A study by the Health Authority in 1993 (admittedly a while ago, but we are essentially the same creatures, just with better internet connection) found that sedentary people had a very negative view of physical activity, finding it difficult, unpleasant and pointless. Of course, some of us have very real physical barriers such as illness or injury that may prevent us getting moving, but for most of us this isn't the case. We just don't think we like it.
So, a lot of it seems down to perception; we don't think we're the sporty type; we think we need to relax rather than exercise; we don't think we have the time. Despite all this, the Allied Dunbar study found that 80% of us still think we're pretty fit, even though we don't really do anything physical.
|Still got it.|
The study also showed that while there are some differences in how men and women feel about exercise, broadly speaking, the barriers for each gender are very similar - and so are the solutions to resolve them.
Critically, no-one likes being made to feel guilty, or being told what to do.
So, what does get us moving?The Allied Dunbar study ranked the motivating factors for exercise among men and women between the ages of 16-69 years old. In order:
- to feel in good shape physically
- to improve or maintain health
- to feel a sense of achievement
- to get outdoors
- to look good
- to control or lose weight
- to have fun
- to relax
- to feel independent
- to get together and meet new people
What is striking though is that nowhere in this list is there any specific mention of mental health.
'This is like being a kid again'These were the words a friend shouted when we went for his first bike ride in years.
I think that pretty much sums up the whole point of exercise.
It's fun, or at least it can be, and it's as effective at treating some forms of depression as drugs.
We just aren't designed to sit around all the time. When we run, swim, cycle, walk a longer distance or do any challenging physical endeavour, people's reaction is often 'You must be mad!'
Understanding what really motivates us is part of the secretChange or Die, a rather dramatically titled (but excellent!) book by Alan Deutschman, cites the example of a study of 37,000 people prescribed statins.
Nearly everyone took the pills for the first month or two but a year later less than half were still taking them.
Just to be clear, these were patients with severe heart disease, for whom taking statins was a potential lifesaver.
All they had to do was take a pill to help stay alive, but they stopped. Why? Well, it turns out that facts and fear don't make people change their behaviour. For a start we already know the facts, we just choose to ignore them. And if the fear we're facing into is too great (such as, 'I might die'), well then denial is a very powerful tool to make us feel safe and carry on as before.
If we apply this to exercise, we can see how laying on fears about weight or health or mobility simply don't help motivate us.
Plus, of course, if we feel pressure to change now, then why didn't we do it years ago? We resist change because it invalidates decisions made by our previous selves. Complicated creatures, humans!
The three Rs of changeAccording to Deutschman to make change happen, there are three simple stages:
- Relate - you form a new relationship with a person or community that inspires hope.
- Repeat - this new relationship helps you learn and practice the new habits and skills you need.
- Reframe - ultimately the new relationship helps you think about things in a completely different way.
It's why exercising with others works so well.
Ever wondered why Park Run has been so successful? It hits all of the 3 Rs. People access a new community of runners (relate) who go every week (repeat) that helps normalise the activity (reframe). And it can have an enormous impact on how we think and feel - not just about running but our bodies, connections with others... everything.
And, the conclusion from all this rumination?Essentially, how we feel about exercise - how we frame our relationship with it - is crucial to getting moving. And the truth is, we can change our mind-set. I see it around me everyday, with clients, friends and family members shifting their thinking to embrace exercise as a form of self-care and self-reward.
There are so many things that can influence how we feel about ourselves and our relationship with our bodies but for me it comes down to a simple truth...
While we all have different motivations, we are all fundamentally the same: made to move.
Scores on the doorsGenuine scientific studies referenced - three
Barriers I recognise in myself - several
Motivating factors - 10 + one
Books on change I'd recommend - one
References to cycling in a blog that's not about cycling - quite a few
A good cycle-ride peeping over the horizon - many