“I love when I sit behind you in class,” a woman I see regularly in spin class said on the way out of the studio. “I can always count on you to be on beat and on the right foot, and that helps motivate me,” she went on.
“Thanks so much!” I replied, “it’s super fun when a bunch of us keep the energy level up and are moving as one big team.”
Little did she know, she was the one that had actually done me the favor. I pick front row bikes specifically because I’ve created what I thought was a mental fiction that the folks behind me would be counting on me to ride strong and stay on beat. The thought that my fitness pals might be thrown off if I slack helps me get a next-level workout, regardless of whether anyone else actually cares what I’m doing.
My “Leader of the Pack” motivational storyline is just one of the little mind games and tricks fit people play with ourselves. Here are few others you might find useful, whether your current goal is cementing a new healthy habit, or finding new inspiration to give maximum effort on your gazillionth workout.
1. Ritualize to habitualize. Twyla Tharp, one of the most prolific artists in the world of dance, has maintained a high level of physical fitness and spiritual wellness well past the age most people pack it in. She documented the power of lifestyle rituals built around healthy habits in her bestseller The Creative Habit
“I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab…It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently.”
The specifics of the ritual don’t even matter. That the ritual exists is everything. It works by taking a decision step out of the equation and removing mental friction.
One of my most powerful personal workout rituals is to book all my bikes and dance classes as far in advance as I can. There is very little that will stop me from going, once it’s on the calendar and paid for.
2. Outsource control of your body parts… just for the hour. Over the years, I’ve had a dozen trainers point out that, “your mind will give up way before your body is actually fatigued.” So I play a mind game with myself to help escape that mental fatigue:
Once I’ve worked out with a trainer enough to trust that they won’t ever tell me to do anything dangerous or insane, I “outsource” all the decision-making about what to with my body to the instructor for that hour of time. This is not to say I “zone out” — instead, I release the the need to have a mental protest running through the background of my workouts so that I can zone in. The “outsourcing” rule eliminates the mental chatter and allows me to actually click into a deeper level of intensity, consciousness and attention to form.
3. Intentional miscounts. It’s pretty common to hear fitness instructors “accidentally” miscount reps or seconds to give you a little bonus on your workout. Recently in a cycling studio, I overheard my fellow classmates discussing all the ways they intentionally miscount in their own minds, to get themselves through long, hard intervals with a little less angst and agitation:
- One girl said when the teacher says, “30 seconds left!” she waits for as many beats as she can, then starts counting down in her own mind. She only ever gets down to about 15 before the full 30 seconds is up.
- Another said she counts along when the teacher announces the time left, but that she counts really slowly, so she also gets a nice “surprise” when the 30 seconds flies by in less than 20 of her own counts.
- Others do the same with individual repetitions of an exercise — not starting to count until they’ve already done a few reps, doing a few more after the last count, or – my personal favorite – doing one rep on each side before I count ’1′ when the teacher is counting each side as a single rep.
4. The “everything must count” food rule. When I worked at MyFitnessPal, the one thing almost everyone agreed was an immediate win from tracking their food intake was a heightened level of mindfulness and nutritional literacy that put an end to snacking on things they don’t even really enjoy.
In comes the “everything must count” food rule. My rule is that everything I’m going to eat must count, must qualify for the privilege of making its way into my body, in one of three ways:
- It has to be really satisfying, really filling
- It has to be a legitimate superfood, power-packed with nutrients, antioxidants, Omega 3′s, and the like, or
- It has to be absolutely freaking delectable. (Note: truffle fries fall within this bullet.)
Many times I find myself not eating something another person might find irresistible because it’s simply not something I personally enjoy enough to be worth the calories or other health impacts of that particular food. If you want to experiment with just one of these Jedi mind tricks, do this one — it’s a life changer.
5. Code your social circle with an IFTTT rule. One of the biggest obstacles to staying on track with healthy habits can be our social calendars, and the fact that our cultural norms build most of our socialization around eating.
You can solve for this issue by “coding” your social circle with an “if this, then that” rule. Anytime my friends ask if I want to go out for drinks or dinner, I generally say, “Sure – let’s book a class somewhere, and go out afterwards.” It can be a dance class, then brunch, or a spin class, then dinner – doesn’t matter. But the general rule is if we are going out for drinks or to eat, then we have to take a class, do a workout or even take a walk first. (Another example: if you get a phone call, then take it outside; use your talk time as an opportunity to leash up the dogs and go for a walk.)
The happy accident of these IFTTTs is that they tend to build even stronger relationships with the folks who will generally support your healthy living efforts. And if you take enough fitness classes long enough, you’ll start to run this social “recipe” in the opposite direction, too — making friends with the folks from class you grab a coffee with afterwards. This can kickstart a snowball effect of “social contagion” in which your whole social circle becomes more likely to work out, order more healthful foods, etc.. Fortunately, “healthy” is contagious.
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