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Why do we exercise? Is it to look a certain way, fit into an old pair of jeans, or appease the doctor? While external reasons to work out can pay off initially if these reasons aren’t personally satisfying, the results may not last and neither will your consistent fitness lifestyle.
Being mindful of what fulfills you will help empower you to want to make time for fitness and help to create a lifelong habit of exercise. Here’s how to use mindfulness techniques to connect with exercise in a way that can be physically, mentally, and emotionally fulfilling:
What is your “why?”
Before you start, restart, or change a fitness routine, ask yourself one question: “Why am I doing this?” One of the reasons people quit an exercise program is due to a lack of interest or purpose. Knowing your “why” ahead of time, can connect you with your own passions and help determine the true purpose of your new goals.
Once you have determined your “why”, the motivation to change should be obvious.
But this is no easy feat. Shifting your focus can be difficult— especially if your value comes from external sources.
If you struggle to define your “why” one thing to consider may be whether or not you have a personal or emotional investment in your goals. If the answer is “no,” then it could be useful to reconsider and find clarity. Try asking yourself these three questions:
- Why is fitness/exercise important to me?
- Why does that reason matter?
- Why do I feel strongly about that reason?
Once you have determined your “why” the motivation to change should be obvious.
Intrinsically motivated people are often far more successful than those who are only motivated by extrinsic rewards. Shifting your focus from what you want to lose (i.e., 20 pounds, a habit of hitting the couch rather than going for a walk after the workday) to what you hope to gain—such as more energy, increased cardio capacity to finish a half-marathon, or happiness and mental clarity—can help you stay on track when you encounter setbacks.
The power of purpose to keep you motivated
Digging deep and being mindful of what fulfills you may help empower you to want to make time for fitness and help you create a lifelong habit. Yet, so many people ignore their intrinsic motivators and instead, begin an exercise program with only one goal in mind: to lose or quit something.
This may cause us to “approach exercise through a shaming or punishing lens,” says Charlynn Ruan, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive Psychology. “They focus on burning calories to compensate for overeating or to get to a size they feel makes them attractive, this associates exercise with negative feelings and thoughts,” she adds. “Research shows that punishment is one of the least effective ways to change behavior. So, by changing exercise into something pleasant and positive, it becomes a rewarding experience, which is much more motivating.”
Shirley Archer, certified personal trainer, meditation teacher, and prolific author of fitness and wellness books, says that we always need to make a choice. “When you understand why you choose to exercise, it can motivate you to stick with it when it’s tempting to skip training.”
Ruan recommends having a couple different “whys.” “If you are exercising just for the physical benefits, you are more likely to find reasons to skip a day. But, if one of your “whys” for exercise is the mental health benefits or that it is your ‘me time,’ then you will still go on days when you might be short on time or know you might not be at your peak physically.”
How mindfulness can help you discover your why
Showing up to exercise for a distinct reason can offer drive and motivation toward a commitment. Setting goals based on your “why” can help bridge the gap between what you do (when you show up) and why you do it.
Archer suggests that in order to hone in on goals that truly resonate with you, it can be important to remove external factors and influences; get clear on what you really value and the belief systems that you hold true for yourself. She explains that if you set a goal based on an external cue, another person’s value system, or simply to please someone else, you’re much more likely to fall short. “Goals set for your authentic reasons will produce a much higher sense of satisfaction when they’re attained.” She recommends the following tips to help you clarify your “why”:
- Take a digital detox—stay off your smartphone, the internet, and TV. Let friends and family know in advance so they won’t be concerned if you go off the grid for a number of hours (or days).
- Get quiet. Spend three to five minutes to simply breathe deeply, focus on the breath, physical sensations, sounds, and observation of thoughts and emotions without judgment. Just be and breathe.
- Visualize yourself in a peaceful moment when you feel that you have the body, energy, and fitness that you desire. Explore what it feels like to inhabit that body. What are you doing? What are you wearing? Where are you? Who are you with? What does it feel and look like to have the ideal health and fitness you desire?
- Write it down. Describe it fully.
- Identify three action items required to accomplish that new self. If you’re unsure what to do, list the types of research and professionals you may need to seek out. Do you need to work with a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or a wellness coach? Create an action plan and begin execution, one step at a time.
Ruan shares a similar approach to Archer and offers these additional tips:
- Schedule a few types of exercise like yoga, running, weightlifting, etc., for a set amount of time.
- Keep notes of how you feel throughout the course of the days you schedule exercise. Write it down.
- Try to stay present during the activity and check in with yourself. Set a timer to alert you in intervals to bring you back to the present and remind you to check in.
- Spend some time with your notes and your new perspective. If you felt much more peaceful and grounded after running and yoga than after weightlifting, consider how this may inform your exercise schedule moving forward.
“Not every activity will resonate with everyone, so the key is finding what is most rewarding to you—that takes intention and introspection to discover,” says Ruann.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.