Watching the Olympics pricks a motivational itch to do something active. After Wimbledon it’s inevitable that tennis courts up and down the country are booked up, the Tour de France encourages the Mamils (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) to crowd country roads and the New Year sees a spat of people out running. But it generally doesn’t last. The Fitness Industry Association report that 22% of people who join the gym in January will have stopped going at all after 24 weeks and 50% after 6 months.
We know we need to exercise but it can be incredibly hard to get going without some big inspirational push and harder still to keep going. Why is that? Why aren’t we all like Olympians?
Aside from the obvious (e.g. natural capability and extreme drive), practical factors get in the way: a late night at work, a last minute call to go out with a friend, a weekend filled with kids activities and well, just life in general – jam packed with things that have to get done. All of this dramatically interferes with habit formation in the brain, which is something that Olympians don’t have to contend with.
Habit Forming And Exercise
When we first perform a behaviour, say restart a gym routine, it takes considerable conscious effort. Once we have repeated the behaviour over and over it’s triggered and performed in a subconscious area of the brain called the basal ganglia making it automatic, it takes far less mental effort. The problem when we stop and start our exercise all the time is that it rarely becomes a deeply engrained habit. And it’s habit that we need to keep it going regardless of how busy life gets.
Habit Forming Obstacles
- Our Ancient Brain
From an evolutionary perspective we are driven to conserve energy until we really need it (e.g. running away from an enemy), so while exercise gives us a buzz, the initial thought of doing any is overlaid by the survival driven part of our brain telling us to sit down for a bit longer. When exercise isn’t a habit, this leads to the internal dialogue between our rational and survival driven brain:
‘I should go to the gym but it’s getting late now, maybe I’ll go tomorrow, I did a good work out yesterday, I should really get on with my ‘to do list’, I’m tired, I don’t feel too well, it’s too cold outside, etc.’
For Olympians, activity is such a strongly engrained habit that the debate doesn’t happen. For us mere mortals, not allowing ourselves to even question whether or not to do exercise is a really helpful approach. I put exercise in the diary then do it before I can start debating the pros and cons.
- Lack of Identification
Olympians ‘are’ the sport they do (there’s no question over whether Mo Farah is a runner). While for non-Olympians hours of daily physical activity is not a practicality, incorporating exercise into how we see ourselves removes another barrier. This is why athletes tend to so effortless switch from one sport to another, they have an implicit belief that sport is who they are e.g. Victoria Pendleton from cyclist to jockey, Chris Hoy from cyclist to racing car driver.
I’ve always been physically active so see myself as sporty, but I’ve always hated running. For the past year I’ve been running at least 3 times a week, which has taken a huge mental effort and has definitely not felt like a habit. But, recently I was in a sports shop looking at the running stuff and this sudden realization came over me – I am a runner (obviously not like Mo Farah, but as far as a local running group is concerned). I’ve shifted my mindset from running being something other people do, to something I do. This mental shift makes forming a habit much easier.
- Working Against Our Preferences
Although the media made a big thing about Gold Medalist Adam Peaty not liking water when he was tiny, ultimately it was him who decided he wanted to train as a swimmer. You can’t force a child to dedicate hours of practice to something they really don’t want to do, and the same principle is true of adults.
Starting a running regime if you hate running is going to be far harder than finding something you really enjoy and making that your exercise of choice (I realise I’m contradicting myself, but I’m extremely stubborn so not a great example.)
- Feeling Like a Failure
It may sound obvious but taking small steps to reach a goal is much more effective than aiming to be as fast a runner as Jessica Ennis in your first 4 weeks then giving up because you can’t do it. Setting realistic sub-goals, stretching but not beyond our reach is critical.
This also links to Emotional Resilience because even taking smaller steps it’s inevitable that we’ll fail: we’ll do a slower run, we’ll have a busy week where we don’t manage to exercise, we may get injured, all putting a spanner in the works for habit formation. This is when we need to get back up and try again.
Murray had so many near misses at Wimbledon in the years leading up to his success. If he hadn’t believed that ultimately he would make it he could of retired, but he didn’t, he kept going.
- Doing it Alone
Although an introvert may prefer a solitary exercise schedule, we are all in some way social by our very make-up, and even if we are introverts we need encouragement and feedback from other people. Trying to do something alone creates obstacles because it works against our natural make-up. Olympic athletes are surrounded by teams of coaches which plays to a need to belong. They are also consistently competing, which not only provides feedback on their own performance but plays to another deeply embedded driver to compare ourselves to other group members. Being with someone else also provides a distraction which is incredibly helpful in getting on with something we may otherwise give up.
Overall it’s about finding what works best for you and what your personal derailers are, the things that prevent you from getting into good exercise habits. Do it and you too could be winning Non Olympic Gold.
Links and References:
Yin, H.H., Knowlton, B.J. (2006)The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 464-476