Originally published on January 12, 2011
I have a particular problem with the word habit being used in regards to exercise or any health-related activities. Exercise should be a positive and rewarding experience. Not a dull chore you are forced to do. The word habit, even when were are talking about positive habits, always somehow coincides with guilt. We guilt ourselves into breaking bad habits and guilt ourselves into picking up good ones. So, when I recently read a blog post in which someone talked about a 30-day gym goal, it was yet another reason to make me believe I was correct. I won’t link to this post or embarrass the person. I’ll just talk about the very typical thought process that was at work.
Basically this person “guilted” himself into going to the gym. He didn’t express any compulsion to be active or to exercise at all. He simply felt that he “had better make the gym a habit” because “they” say it is important.
So he set for himself the goal of going to the gym every day for 30 days and just went for it. He didn’t quite make that goal but he did establish, so he says, a “habit” of going to the gym.
Now I don’t know what would possess someone to think they need to go to a gym EVERY day but before you ask…no, he wasn’t going to over-train. He was basically just “showing up” and doing the same thing for the most part. There was no particularly novel challenge. Therefore, after the first week or so he would have begun establishing a baseline and then would have maintained that. No chance of even “over-reaching” let alone over-training.
Showing Up to the Gym is Good Enough At First
The funny thing is that, despite what most people believe, there is nothing wrong with just “showing up” at first. It is best to have a little guidance on exercise but it is hard enough just to get moving let alone to embark on a “life-changing plan”. So a simple attitude of “let’s just get moving and see what develops” can be a good strategy at first. It can prepare one to move on to the next step. I actually disagree that your starting motivations for exercising are as important as most fitness professionals say they are. But, it’s the underlying attitude I want to talk about. Because while many things can motivate us to get started, it’s our underlying attitudes, what we bring to it, that determine how we will proceed. But what if you don’t have any motivation at all?
I Have No Motivation to Exercise
The notion of showing up to the gym often enough that it ‘becomes a habit’ is just one example of an attitude I have seen a million times. And I am going to tell you right now, it won’t work. You may establish a short-term habit but there is very little there to make it STICK. When you “just show up” and “get it done” there is just not much reward and therefore the ONLY factor that gets you to show up is what is known as an “extrinsic controller”.
In this case, you look at going to the gym as a CHORE that you must do. Very few people do the dishes because they get a lot of personal satisfaction from doing so. They do the dishes to control the FILTH.
That filth is an extrinsic or outside factor. In other words, it is not something from within you that is making you do it, it is something from outside, in your environment, that makes you do it. Of course, it can be said that we have an innate aversion to filth and corruption and that this aversion is necessary to keep us healthy. However, this aversion is easily short-circuited and usually requires a very strong stimulus, such as a dead animal carcass or fecal matter. Although I do admit that I find hand-washing the dishes therapeutic in some strange way, most people are not particularly motivated to do this chore. They just force themselves to do it.
Nonetheless, being socially and psychologically oriented toward a certain degree of cleanliness is very practical when it comes to filth but even then, we all know people who are just SLOBS, right? Clearly, the presence of filth is NOT ENOUGH to make them clean up consistently. I’ve just discussed this in a related post called Fitness and Strength Training: It’s a Process.
Yet filth is a very tangible thing. You can see it. Smell it. FEEL it. It’s hard to ignore.
But being out of shape or “unhealthy?” Not so much. Maybe being visibly overweight is a more tangible motivator to exercise. But then we are talking about appearance and therefore other people’s perception. So we exercise because of what other people think. Again, an intangible, extrinsic motivator.
However, not many people worry that they are not motivated to wash the dishes. Yet people do worry that they are not motivated to exercise. Clearly, then, most of use are able to understand that exercise may be a more important priority in the big scheme of things. So, even though you may not be motivated to exercise, the very fact that you are aware of this and concerned about it shows that you have a positive attitude toward exercise. If you didn’t at some level see it as an important and rewarding thing, you would not be concerned with your lack of motivation. The fitness industry constantly shouts about motivation, making you feel worthless because you don’t have it! Yet, you have something more important! You see exercise as something of value.
Exercise Makes Me Depressed
Have you ever heard anyone say that exercise makes them depressed? To people like me, it can come as a shock. Strength training, muscle building, and exercise, in general, is my therapy. It helps relax me and center me. It’s ME time where I decompress. But, going to the gym out of guilt is a sure fire way to make yourself MORE miserable and MORE stressed.
I have read many scientific arguments on whether regular exercise elevates the mood and helps treat depression. Well, the question is what comes first? How you feel about and approach the exercise in the first place will go a long way in determining whether it is a pleasant, mood elevating experience or a negative cognitive stressor. If exercise comes with negative associations, it may not be a pleasant experience, but an unpleasant and depressing one.
Let’s examine that. Imagine this is you: You don’t exercise and have never really exercised regularly. You spend most of your time either at a desk or in front of the television. You may be one of those people who say they are not motivated to exercise.
Suddenly, you say to yourself, “Self, you’d better get in shape. They say that’s very important. How’s about you go to the gym 3 times a week from now on? No, that’s not enough, you’d better go to the gym every day for the next month, that way it will become a habit.”
So that’s your goal AND your plan. That’s it. Go to the gym. So you go. And you do some stuff. Every day. And it becomes a habit. For a while.
Guess what. That little conversation with yourself revealed a couple of things. One, you are one boring and down in the dumps person! Two, you are approaching exercise with this very same attitude. You see, if “going to the gym” is all that you can conceive of when it comes to physical activity and exercise, then we can almost guarantee that it will be difficult to make the resulting gym-going into a positive, rewarding experience. You perceive no INTRINSIC value for it. You simply conceive of it as a CHORE. Like washing the dishes.
So the FIRST thing to do, before setting a vague, and somewhat pointless goal, of just going to a building on a daily basis is to take an honest look at yourself and examine your attitudes about exercise and physical activity in general.
A person with a positive outlook toward physical activity would probably have been able to think of many more less mundane and vague things to do. And you need much more specific goals than just showing up.
Those goals do not need to be complex and lofty at first. What you want to do is set up a positive and rewarding environment for yourself. It needs to have value for you. It needs to have some type of reward.
At first, if you don’t have a clear direction or plan you can set specific short terms challenges.
Maybe you can’t do a pullup. Or can only do one. You know, most people whom I’ve met, when they discover they can’t even pull their own body-weight up, they tend to feel like this is something they would like to be able to do. Yet very few people think that it is OK to have that as one of your goals.
Well, it is OK. You can set a goal of being able to do five pullups in a row or five pushups in a row. And then once you achieve that you can go for two sets of five. Whatever you want. You will feel better about yourself after having achieved this specific goal and you will feel much more motivated to further challenge yourself. My mother recently started doing one exercise: Planks. She set a goal for herself and really rose to the challenge. Amazingly, reaching this one goal of being able to hold a session of planks for 60 seconds, and then repeat that several times, not only made her feel stronger and boosted her energy, it was a great mood-elevating experience! Now, she is adding other exercises. But it all started with one simple exercise. She needed to prove to herself she could do it before she felt confident that she could do more.
And on that note, if all you really want to do is be active, you do NOT need to pay a monthly membership fee to do that. Corporate gyms are built on the premise that YOU WILL NOT SHOW UP.
Let me try to state it as clearly and bluntly as possible: Exercise is not your PUNISHMENT for a bad lifestyle!
Does Exercise Make You Feel Dirty?
For some of the more physically fit and active readers, that question may throw you for a loop. If you’re having a WTF moment right now it’s because you are not aware that many people attach a negative stigma to the physically fit. And if you weren’t aware of that, good for you! Don’t worry about it. The rest of this article is aimed at those who have this negative perception of exercise.
If I were to lay it on someone’s doorstep, I’d be tempted to blame the commercial gym industry and the bodybuilding world. Sorry bodybuilders, but a few of you with all the obsessive “lifestyle” talk make people think bodybuilders are a bunch of vanity-driven and obsessive muscle heads. We know how a few bad apples can spoil the bunch. That’s because the bad apples stand out in a crowd of good ones and cause us to over-estimate their prevalence.
So this stigma that is present in some people’s minds, against those who work out regularly, is based on a few “obsessed” individuals who go to ridiculous lengths in their lifestyle. For many, even when they do make the decision they feel like they are doing something dirty. They don’t want to be like those obsessed people. Of course not.
When people like the guy I was talking about make these kinds of resolutions it makes me wonder. Is that how they think we live? That it’s just some obsessive chore that we feel compelled to complete? And that we are able to sustain that for many years?
This “dirty feeling” is at war with the poor self-confidence and self-image which the commercial gym system preys on. The simple fact is that most people who are able to sustain a physically fit and healthy lifestyle do not view it as a chore. They have integrated it, in a realistic way, into their lifestyle. They are not obsessive fanatics.
And yes, I have met some obsessive fanatics. Those I met a few years ago are no longer obsessive fanatics about “bodybuilding lifestyles” or any other fitness pursuit. They are currently residing in the where-are-they-now file. They could not sustain and most of it was about “talking the talk” rather than walking the walk. Here is a hint to spot the difference. A person that really loves something and has a particular passion for pursuing certain goals does not go on and on about how passionate they are, mentioning this every time they see you. This is usually a signal that the person is trying to convince themselves and is unhappy about their current state of affairs.
You do not have to pretend you are an athlete to be healthy and fit. In fact, you shouldn’t. The think like an athlete fallacy is another ridiculous idea that has been shoved down people’s throat for too long. Read more about that in Drop the Labels