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

Psychology of exercise

Exercise is such a mind game. People 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?

Everyone that exercises 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?

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!

Goals

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. 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.

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!). 

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.

Progress

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 body fat 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.

Onward!

These ideas provide the foundation for your approach to training. Most people fail because they don’t have a good 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. 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.