The Psychology of Exercise: Why Exercise is Really a Mind Game, and Strategies to Win

Exercise goals

I’ve been interested in the psychology of exercise for as long as I’ve been in the fitness industry (cough, 1994, cough). Exercise is such a mind game. From what I’ve observed, those who workout regularly/workout hard/set goals and consistently work toward them, etc. have conquered the mind game of exercise. But what is it exactly that sets these people apart? How do you achieve mind over matter when your body is screaming that it wants to stop?

Performance in sport and exercise goes far beyond training – it is an active process where you need the right mindset, skills, tools and attitudes for maximum success. Everyone that chooses to exercise has a goal – being better at sports, improved health or simply looking good and having more confidence. The psychology of exercise is something we cannot overlook if we want to achieve these goals.

Who do you want to be?

To begin this process, first ask yourself a few questions: what are your reasons for exercising? What kind of exercise do you enjoy? The answer to these questions is a great starting point for setting goals, measuring progress and figuring out the best approach to training. For example, an individual who wants a muscular, toned physique wouldn’t train in marathon running: this will lead to serious loss of motivation when they realize they can’t achieve their goal with their chosen method. It is important that our training be specific to what we want to achieve.

If you don’t know what you want to achieve with exercise, then ask yourself, what kind of person do I want to be? Many of us have an idea about how we want to live in the world and the way we want to present ourselves. This gives us great insight because the kind of exercise and approach you need to take is the one that your “best self” might embody. Choose the training method that will bring you closer to being this person and think of it whenever you feel tempted to give up.

For example, if your ideal version of yourself is a strong, athletic physique then you might try classical strength and conditioning training. If your ideal for yourself is improved coordination, you might look towards cardio dance classes. The psychology of exercise is generally a mixture of the psychology of self (and how you perceive yourself) and what we find enjoyable. The way that we perceive ourselves – and aim to be – is something that we need to understand to establish goals that we actually care about enough to keep ourselves on track!

How should you choose goals?

Now that you have the framework of an ideal version of yourself, choosing goals is much easier. You can look at where you are now and where you want to be, and make a plan that takes you from “here” to “there”. Goals should be stepping stones on the way, but they must be constructed properly. Most people fail because they have unrealistic goals and failure does nothing to make people more enthusiastic about what they’re trying to achieve! Goals should be big enough to inspire you to act, but small enough that you can achieve them and feel the satisfaction of completing a challenge.

In regard to the psychology of exercise, setting and achieving goals is an important and valuable process for many reasons: confidence, self-esteem, motivation, etc. The basis for confidence is what you believe you can accomplish. If you start with small goals and work up to larger goals, you will improve your self-belief along the way. Each new challenge you complete will require you to grow and improve, making you more capable for future challenges and obstacles (both in training and life!). This is the process by which mastery occurs in every field – in exercise and sports performance, respect for this process can make or break your long-term success.

Any goal in exercise should be tempered by patience and persistence. The body does not do anything “quickly” so the best approach is to commit to long-term, rather than short-term, change. Exercise shouldn’t be viewed as a cure for obesity or poor self-confidence (though it is great for both), but rather a long-term lifestyle change aimed at becoming a better, more complete person. If you take this approach, you’ll find that improvements in appearance, strength, endurance, power and performance all occur as secondary benefits along the way.

Motivation

Motivation is at the heart of the psychology of exercise. Motivation is the desire and drive to do something, which should already alert us to the fact that it will come and go. The problem with motivation is that it is fickle and many people do not need much tempting to skip training sessions, eat things that they know are counter-productive to their goals and generally sabotage their own success.

If this is the case, what is the best approach to motivating yourself? How about give up on motivation altogether and focus instead on establishing good habits. Habits will define the way that you perform and the progress that you make. Routines are a great way of getting into the habit of doing things that you might otherwise skip out on. The best way to approach exercise it to make attendance something you do without thinking: attending should become passive, training should always be deliberate.

Training plans exist specifically for this purpose: whether you feel like training or not, you have a plan that details when you will train and what you will do. Creating a plan that you commit to and put 100% effort into is more than half of the battle. If you can consistently show up and simply focus on being better today than you were yesterday, you’re going to succeed. As mentioned above, persistence and patience are the keys to improving.

Depending on the kind of exercise you do and your level of commitment, coaches and mentors can be a huge benefit to your approach. A personal trainer will certainly give you a boost in accountability and routine, or it can be equally effective to train with an experienced training partner. Being around someone who knows enough to keep you in check and hold you accountable is a great way to improve your adherence to your training plan. Find someone who supports you and pushes you to improve.

How to train to make progress

One of the main questions we receive about training is how to improve the quality of your training and results. This is far simpler than many people think! First, show up – if you skip sessions or otherwise fail to commit, you won’t make the progress of which you’re capable. We’ve already mentioned consistency twice, because it’s one of the most important things you can have. If you train for an hour a day, 3 times a week, then you will add up 156 hours of hard work and progress over a year – but only if you attend every session that you’ve planned. Every hour counts towards the result!

Secondly, choose goals that are measurable. While many people aim to improve general health and fitness, this is hard because you don’t have any definite measure of health and fitness. There are too many variables to determine if you’re doing better: what if your strength and endurance go up but your joint health deteriorates? Have goals that are attached to ‘real’ measures of progress. This might mean the number of pounds on the bar, the time for your 1 mile run or simply the amount of bodyfat you carry. Set a goal you can measure and make sure that every exercise and training session you do is an active step towards that goal – if you can’t justify why you’re doing something, don’t do it.

Justifying your training by reference to your goal should be your main focus in training. Effective training is always goal-oriented. One of the most overlooked ways to improve – by both recreational gym-goers and elite athletes alike – is constantly improving the little things! This usually means focusing on small parts of your training in order to improve your overall progress: set a small goal or focus for the day and make sure that you work toward it. For example, strength training with the deadlift can be improved session-to-session by actively working on the setup position, the sequencing of the muscles or other small technical changes – they add up in the long term. Those who train with the intention of deliberately improving technique will progress faster than those who just ‘do the thing’. Set yourself up for success by having an idea of what you need to work on and focusing on it.

Closing remarks

The psychology of exercise is extensive and it would be way too much to cover in a single article. With that said, the things that we’ve discussed above should be the basis for your approach to training: most people fail because they don’t have a consistent idea of what they want to do and they don’t know how to set the kind of goals that will improve their chances of success. If you follow this guide – figure out who you want to be, set goals that are realistic but ambitious, and focus on developing habits rather than motivation – you can improve your chances of success. Exercise is a mind-game for many of us and it is important to learn how to play that game if you want to set yourself up to win.