Mind Over Matter: Mental Strategies to Push Towards Your Movement Goals

“Put all excuses aside and remember this:  You are capable.”–Zig Ziglar

During my Saturday morning run this past week, there were numerous times I wanted to quit. It had taken me nearly two hours to complete, and it had not felt nearly as good as my last run at the exact same distance.  Nonetheless, I kept employing different mental strategies I’ve learned over the years and, ultimately, completed my goal.

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That run got me thinking about the importance of mindset and the mental strategies/techniques we sometimes need to employ to incorporate more movement and exercise into our lives.  Therefore, in this 8th installment of my “Move into Health” series, I will share several research based mental strategies for exercise/movement for those days when we “aren’t feeling it.”  Moreover, many of these tips can be applied to other areas of life, such as tackling difficult tasks.

The mind-body connection is powerful. Whether discussing exercise, or tackling a difficult/challenging project, it is important to recognize the influence of the mind-body connection.  From having a churning stomach in response to an upside routine change, such as shift workers, to coming down with a cold after prolonged exposure to a stressful event, our bodies respond to the changes in our mind.  Therefore, by understanding this connection, we can unleash its potential to positively influence our attitudes and choices, especially with regards to movement goals.

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Be patient; remember the long game, and avoid comparison: As my decades continue to stack, the long-game is most often at the forefront of my thoughts.  By prioritizing the fact that I want to remain injury free, healthy, mentally engaged, and purpose-driven for years to come, I’ve had to slow down, make moderation a priority, and avoid comparisons to my past self, previous workouts, and definitely not to others.  It’s important to be clear on long-term life goals and determine how movement/exercise can benefit that plan.  When we see how exercise and movement can contribute to and enhance our bigger life picture, it provides a bit more motivation to get out there, even when we don’t “feel like it.”

  Let go of attachments, especially to perfection and the all or nothing mindset: Our mind can be a bit of a trickster and convince us that exercise and movement should feel, be, or look a certain way. That’s all nonsense. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel great, but if nothing is hurt or injured, we have to keep going.  Other times, we may have little in the tank or reduced time. Rather than throw in the towel, try another workout or shorten your workout time.  Some form of added movement is always better than nothing!

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Embrace the unknown, including discomfort: Along with letting go of attachments to how exercise/movement should be, it is important to embrace the unknown.  Whether it is going to a new gym, a new exercise class, or walking in a new area, accept that it will feel uncomfortable and new for the first few times.  Likewise, it is important to understand that with muscle growth comes some discomfort, including sore muscles.  This is where it is important to discern the good pain from the “I-might-be injured” pain.  Most of our pain is the good kind, but we do need to pay attention to unusual or persistent pain.

Muscle has memory:  The more we exercise/move, the fitter we become, and the “easier” it is for the body to move.  This is important for those of us who are not “naturally” gifted athletes, or no longer spring chicks for that matter!  As our fitness levels increase, our likewise energy increases, making even everyday movement tasks feel easier.  Now that’s motivating!

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Break “large” workouts into smaller tasks and start easy: When I am faced with a long run, I think about it in chunks, and I start slowly with a walk to build success.  With each successfully completed chunk, I mentally celebrate, “One-third down, only two-thirds left to go!”  I continue in this manner until I attain my goal mileage.  Additionally, I’ve applied this mindset across a multitude of workouts and projects unrelated to exercise.  

Visualize the feeling of success that comes with finishing, and don’t underestimate the potency of a smile:  This is a tool I employ before and during a workout.  I think about how good it will feel to know I accomplished whatever it is I set out to do.  By focusing on that feeling, I automatically smile.  Smiling starts a chain reaction of positive feelings coursing throughout my body, but especially my brain.  It is those good vibes that keep me going, and they can keep you going too!

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Adapt a “no-fail” mindset.  Since we do have that mind-body connection, we can harness the power of words to move our bodies. Create a mantra, or saying, for when your workout or movement gets tough.  I often talk to myself during, especially hard workouts.  I’ll use phrases like, “You can do this, Steph.”  “You’ve got this, Steph.” Other times, I use one word, such as, “Fortitude,” “Perseverance,” and “Tenacity,” which are a few of my favorites.  The key is finding the motivating word(s) that strengthen your resolve.

Power up with music and songs: Music doesn’t motivate everyone, but it certainly does a large number of us.  The right playlist can motivate and move you into action.  

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Create a reward system: I call it the if-then principal.  If you do this, then you get to do this. Have some sort of reward system in place for yourself, and focus on it during those challenging workouts.

Have a purpose for your run:  I often have a prayer/meditation that I repeatedly say.  Other times, I run in honor of a veteran (Team Red White & Blue and Wear Blue) by writing the name of a veteran on my hand, or creating a list of several vets and tucking the list into a tiny pocket in my tights.  The point is that by adding a higher purpose to my workout, I attach greater meaning to a workout that increases my motivation.

Everyday may not offer ideal situations for movement; therefore, having a toolkit of mental “hacks” can help us push past our own resistance and/or excuses.  Exercise not only works only our muscles, but also our mental strength and, ultimately, our overall well-being. Combining the power of the mind-body connection, especially over time, improves both our physical well being and creates a more disciplined and determined mind.  So grab your toolbelt, and learn to attach and switch out any of these various tools to motivate you to move into health, so you never have a reason to give up.

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Choose Joy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell

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There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students.  Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy.  One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II.  Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”

In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her.  Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation.  However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation.  Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally.  It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.   

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Given the news, the pandemic, the  major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them.  On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.

In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity.  It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way.  As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride.  The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.

Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control.  It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio.  This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.  

I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy.  No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché.  However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.

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I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought.  It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention.  Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do.  Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset.  I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations.  Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile.  I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.

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I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset.  My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith.  He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again. 

In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice

And I choose joy!

I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all.  Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.  

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