The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

How To Decide to Workout

Who are you? 

Are you a man or woman of your word?  Are you a person of character?  Do you do what you say you’re going to do, or do you let your words slip out of your mouth with no intentions of backing them up? 

Better yet, how do you make those decisions on “Who you are?”  In other words, how do you make decisions?  How does anyone make decisions? 

In psychology, there are many models of “decision-making” out there.  You have the Costs vs. Benefits model, which basically postulates that you individually look at the costs of taking a certain action versus the benefits of that action.  This model although logically sound, often fails miserably in the “real world” since we don’t always act rationally.   

You then have another type of model that says that we are not completely rational beings and therefore have to take into consideration our emotions.  What are our emotions, but our instincts, beliefs, conditionings and desires.  The combination of those four aspects reveal how we take in and interpret the environment which then leads us to an emotion and therefore leads us to a more predictable action. 

For example, if you hear a loud bang, you instinctively move away from the noise and the noise will cause your body, via the Sympathetic Nervous System, to release adrenalin – these are the physical causes.  If you grew up in an environment where loud bangs were common (your father was always re-modeling the house), that physical sensation would be conditioned to be a normal part of the environment.  That conditioning was typically backed by a belief that loud bangs are inevitable when you are making changes to a large physical environment.  Then you have your desires – which ultimately determine the emotion.  To continue with the example, say instead of remodeling your house, your significant other was hanging your new 60-inch flat screen 3-D TV in your living room when you heard the loud bang.  How would you react then? 

If you combine these two aspects, you have the rational costs vs. benefits model and emotional vs. logical models.  To continue with the example, you may have reacted negatively and quickly to the loud bang, although you may have not known the cause of the noise.  If this was the case, you may have gone into the living room angry and ready to berate your significant other.  That first sensation would be more emotional.  Then when you walked into the room, you noticed that the only thing that fell was a picture frame, which didn’t break, and you started to analyze the situation more logically.  You would adjust your emotions based on the logical costs vs. benefits and realize that there were no costs incurred from the loud noise, but there were benefits to stop acting on your initial anger. 

There are a bunch of other supporting theories, such as Loss Aversion, Availability Bias, Second-Order Decisions, etc. but the bottom line is, what the hell does this actually have to do with whether or not you decide to workout? 

Studies on exercise adherence, or your willingness to stick to a workout routine, has shown that many people need 10 more “benefits” than “costs” of exercising in order to continue to exercise. 

The problem with this costs vs. benefits model with concern to exercise is that many people can’t think of 10 reasons overall to exercise – no matter 10 reasons over all of the “costs” that people come up with to not exercise. 

In other words, it sounds like the reasons didn’t come first, but instead were already there.  What the hell does that mean though – that the reasons to exercise were already self-evident to the people adhering to exercise? 

It means that those reasons were a part of the individual’s identity.  In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about a Stanford University professor, James March, who proposses that we all use two basic models to make decisions:
“The first model involves calculating consequences.  We weigh our alternatives, assessing the value of each one, and we choose the alternative that yields us the most value.  This model is the standard view of deicision-making in economics classes:  People are self interested and rational”  … “The second model is quite different.  It assumes that people make decisions based on identity.  They ask themselves three questions:  Who am I?  What kind of situation is this?  And what do people like me do in this kind of situation?” 

I believe this second model of decision-making is dead on.  It’s also one of the easiest concepts to change.  The first model that I talked about doesn’t engage you emotionally and rarely leads to long-term change.  It engages the top 4 inches of your body, but rarely the rest of it.  The second model of emotions vs. logic is also hard to change.  Our emotions are embedded into us young and you would need to change 1 – 4 of the aspects that effect those emotions.  That can be hard to do. 

This identity-model presented by James March though, is the easiest way to make the decision to workout.  Just know, in your heart, who you want to be.  Too often we get swayed by our emotions, we get swayed by our fatigue, our justifications for living mediocre and often times sub-mediocre lives and our health and bodies show it. 

The people who I’ve seen achieve the most with their health and fitness goals are always the people that have been able to push themselves even when they were running on empty.  When there was nothing left in the tank, they found the will to continue to drive on.  How did they do it?  They identified with the best within themselves, with what they were aspiring to be and not simply their weaker emotions in the moment. 

We all have a better vision of ourselves, of our bodies and of our lives.  Too often though, we get bogged down in the details.  We get bogged down by the fatigue, by the temptation of friends, by the temptation to break our word to ourself and “just sleep in.”  The bottom line though, is that we also have the ability to aspire to greater heights, to achieve our best, to work towards who we want to be and who we know we are capable of being.  It isn’t until we take ownership of that vision that we will ever move past our current circumstances and move into the higher realm of living to our highest standards, our highest values and hence the best of ourselves.   

If you’re going to make a decision to workout, then sure, you want to have logical reasons for doing so.  You should also find emotional reasons to enjoy exercise itself, but those things should come after the fact that you are willing yourself to improve your life and who you are.  You are not simply exercising, you are changing your identity.  You are not suffering through a workout, but living up to your highest values. 

Know what you want from exercise – from weight loss, to stress relief, to the knowledge that you’re making your body your own and  under your command and not the other way around – but no matter what your goal, find your vision, and more importantly, find your identity when it comes to exercise.

Therefore, the next time that you feel like skipping a workout, ask yourself three questions:  Who am I?  What kind of situation is this?  And what do people like me do in this kind of situation? 

Hold yourself accountable to your higher standards and live that idealized vision of yourself.

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