The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

You Must Own It – pt. 3

Exercise is a funny thing.

People know that one of the best ways to lose weight is to exercise and eat better.  Yet these two things are what most people spend a considerable amount of time actively avoiding. This is despite being the two aspects that would actually help them have the bodies they desire.  The question I’ve always had is why?

When I first started working in the fitness field, I used to have a more condemning aspect as to why people didn’t work out.  I then realized that I was holding a very narrow point of view and if there’s anything I despise, it’s being willfully ignorant.  Outside of exercise, there were plenty of habits that people didn’t attempt to change despite having the resources to do so, myself included.  I know there were definitely a number of habits that I choose to actively avoid changing despite the potential positive impacts it would have on my life.  This reasoning combined with seeing my mother and sister not exercise, when it was such a natural part of my life, made me not want to condemn them, but to understand them.  With understanding comes acceptance and for me, with acceptance comes empathy and hence a non-“douche”-y mindset in trying to help someone.

During this time, I read through 100’s of 1000’s of health, fitness, nutrition and psychological articles and books.  I combined that learning with a teaching of over a 1,000 group exercise classes, 1,000 personal training sessions, while also heading up  over 50 work-site programs, all with the intention of changing the health behaviors of a group of individuals.  Eventually, a pattern emerged.  That pattern is what these posts are about…and if I ever get around to it, what my book will be about.

The question remained though, how does someone change their health behaviors and “Make it Their Own?”  How do they change, not because I told them to, but because they want to?  How do I get my clients and members to stop fighting against the health benefits of fitness, and to accept them so much, that they actually desire to work out?  How do I get them to a place where they’re working out to not only to lose weight or for the health benefits, but because they actually enjoy the process and the work outs?  I feel that this question is the ONLY answer that needs to be answered.  I know that despite all the mind-fucks that I’ve put myself through in terms of exercise knowledge and “experimentation” I still simply enjoyed working out.  It was that reason that caused me to return to it, time and time again.

During my second year at my current job, something funny happened to me though – I stopped enjoying working out.  I was teaching too many classes, trying to work out on my own and had a lifestyle not very conducive to sleep and/or recovery.  The working out had become too much for my body and hence, I was in constant pain and fatigue.  I had over-trained before, but this was long-term over-training.  Working out had stopped being fun and because of that, I lost my motivation to work out.

Mind you, in normal circumstances, I truly enjoy kicking my ass.  The almost throwing up feeling, the, “Holy shit, I can’t stand,” feeling is what I love.  Without the ability to recover and enjoy almost any other aspect of my life though, my workouts became unenjoyable.  For the first time in my life I actively avoided going to the gym.  There was no other time I could remember in which I was making justifications for NOT working out.  I felt like I was back in high school and was actively avoiding going to school.

With all the psychological theories out there, only one or two truly predicted why I was actively avoiding working out.  The best one to do so was the Self-Determination Theory or SDT.

SDT combined with Chaos theory and some physiological factors, pretty much held the keys to all of the reasons why I wasn’t working out.

Self-Determination Theory says that humans have three basic needs which need to be met in order to have a behavior be easily sustained and enjoyed.  Those three needs are Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. We each seek to have our actions be independent and of our choosing, or autonomous.  During those actions, we like to feel comfortable in knowing that we understand what to do and can handle whatever were to come up, or very simply feeling competent.  We also like to know that by taking those actions, we are connecting with other people and that it is serving to create stronger bonds with others, aka having a sense of relatedness with others.

If you look at some the persistently popular group exercise classes, such as Zumba or Spin, and ask, “Why are they popular,” you’ll see that they hit upon all three of these aspects.  First, the person chooses to do it, therefore promoting autonomy.  Secondly, if the instructor is good and gives positive feedback along with proper instruction, they help to foster a sense of competency.  And third, while in those class environments, the people typically have a very real sense of relatedness with others (There are definitely Spin zealots out there).

If you look at SDT and the three basic needs that they promote, you will also see why I started to dislike my own workouts.  Whereas, I had always enjoyed the knowledge of doing what I thought worked, when I started to learn more, I started to doubt my competency (WHAT…?!?  There were people out there that knew more than me?  I must be incompetent).  The learning of new information rocked the foundation of what I thought I knew and therefore lowered my perceived competence for some time.  The sheer volume of the group exercise classes I taught, and actually performed with the classes, was extremely high.  Combine that, with the fact that I had very little control over the amount of classes I had to teach, and the autonomy over my decision to workout was significantly decreased.  The icing on the cake, came when my personal workouts caused my body to become so fatigued that I didn’t want to hang out with my friends.  And although, I could justify working out to a point of exhaustion at certain times and for certain goals, this is how I consistently felt for two years.

Needless to say I fell in with SDT’s expectations.  I had a lowered perceived competency level, was no longer autonomous in choosing my workouts and in working out, I lowered my sense of relatedness.   Therefore, it made sense that I would actively avoid working out for myself, because I wasn’t meeting their recommendations of competency, autonomy or relatedness.

In Part 4, I will start to discuss the 4 types of extrinsic motivation that SDT lists along it’s motivational continuum.  See you Monday.

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