Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 26 May 2019

Train your brain: how to change bad habits and start good ones

Changing bad habits and starting good ones is one of the hardest things to sustain. Our resident psychologist Allison Keating has a step-by-step plan to get you started

Our natural instinct is for inertia and the avoidance of pain, so we need to train our brains to exert discipline and form a routine
Our natural instinct is for inertia and the avoidance of pain, so we need to train our brains to exert discipline and form a routine

The secret to thriving physically is simple - 'eat less, move more'.

The hard part is putting those simple words into practice. Guess what muscle you need to work on the most to exercise and move more? It isn't your pecs or quads, it lies between your ears - your brain!

The majority of us will pick the comfort, warmth and entertainment of Netflix and the couch over heading out for a walk or a run. So how do you circumnavigate your natural instincts? How do you motivate yourself to get off the couch and start moving?

Motivation from a psychological point of view is a drive. You need to work out what is stopping you from exercising and then work out what will drive you to exercise.

You need to be clear on both these questions as your resolve needs to be strong. Everything from being tired, hungry, the kids' project or your looming work deadline will deter you from making time to exercise.

Our natural instinct is for inertia and the avoidance of pain, so we need to exert discipline and form a routine which will, hopefully, become habitual. There will be times you fall off the exercise wagon, but the only thing to do is dust yourself off and start again. This is where you have to kick your brain into gear before you fall into an erroneous negative spiral of 'I knew I couldn't do this'.

Expect setbacks, prepare for them, everyone has an off day or week - all you need to do is to get back to your plan.

We all have limiting beliefs that hold us back. What are yours in relation to exercise? It may seem like an odd question, but write it down. You need to identify yours so you know how to challenge your thoughts. You will often find limiting beliefs lurking in areas of your life that aren't working, with many justifications as to why this is so, from self-deprecating comments 'I'm more for rolling than running' to judging others 'she's obsessed with exercise'. Where did these beliefs come from? How did you family talk about exercise?

Many of these limiting beliefs surfaced in PE in the school hall or changing room, as self-conscious teens compared themselves to their peers. That sense of body judgment can hold many back from going into gyms, or going for a run with the dread and fear of others passing comment on them and their body. It can be easier to scoff at the gym bunny or buff from the comfort of the couch. It takes great courage as an adult to go back to something when you don't feel physically good about yourself. The consequences of these limiting thoughts however, hold serious health consequences.

How to identify and change limiting beliefs:

1. Identify what beliefs you hold about exercise and your body.

2. Read it out loud.

3. Are these facts or opinions?

4. What supportive evidence do you have to back this up?

5. What benefits are there to holding on to these beliefs?

6. What are the costs to holding on to these beliefs?

7. Ok, so your behaviour shows your limiting belief is impacting your health, what time have you set aside to cultivate an exercise routine?

8. If you didn't hold this belief, what and how would your life be different? Be specific.

What is your goal with exercise?

Write this down. How will you achieve this? Remember abs are made in the kitchen so you need to combine your eating with your exercise plan.We will work on this next week.

Rather than assuming everyone is judging you, consider this, perhaps if someone sees you starting to exercise they think 'fair play' or 'that was me a year ago' and can completely relate the feelings of shame and fear that can hold people back.

Like all big changes in life, it demands you to be courageous and to literally put yourself back out there again.

Find your drive

Your motivation. Remember your childhood hobbies, activities you enjoyed. This is so important for adults and, in particular, for parents who are energy and time poor. That one hour a few times a week may be the only time they have to themselves. It needs to be scheduled with no excuses, barring sickness or being exhausted and where it would do more harm than good. Given the choice of exercise or couch, trust me, your limited January 'willpower' will evaporate quicker than you think.

Gretchen Rubin's book The Four Tendencies can be useful in identifying what type you are in terms of how you deal with expectations. We all face inner (New Year's resolutions, want to get fit) and outer expectations, such as delivering on your work deadline or a friend or colleague asking for your help. Our inner expectations are what we expect of ourselves, meeting these needs can come at the cost of meeting our external ones first. There are four types or tendencies that we have in how we respond to these expectations - they are an upholder, questioner, obliger or rebel. (To find your type you can do the quiz https://quiz.gretchenrubin.com/)

'Obligers' are most commonly women, find they meet external expectations asked of them within work, family, partner or friends but struggle to meet their own inner expectations such as wanting to lose weight, exercise or take any time for themselves.

An 'obliger' who has signed and paid up to a class is more likely to meet the external expectancy that they have booked in, whereas as a 'questioner' prefers the freedom to exercise when and where they want to. The 'rebel' resists both their inner and outer expectations so definitely not helpful to get you moving.

If you could work on changing limiting beliefs and be more like an 'upholder' who meets both their own needs and others, this is a good balance to strike.

With exercise if you don't prioritise it, life will prioritise you and your limited time and energy.

People who exercise regularly don't always want to exercise. They have to push themselves, they have to override the desire to stay home after a hard day at work or peel themselves out of bed first thing to get their exercise in. Routine is very important, with a pretty concrete exercise schedule that you commit to, but, and it's a big but, they don't possess magical motivation powers that you don't have. They just do it. This limiting belief that exercisers are different to you and once it's a habit that's you sorted for life is just not true.

Dr Shoma Morita says human motivation is influenced by two opposing practices: (1) the desire to live fully and (2) the desire to maintain security and comfort. This makes so much sense as we all want to be healthy but the practice and act of this goes against our natural desire to resist and avoid discomfort. This is why you have to take control of your automatic inclination to avoid, complain about and use the 'I'm too busy or tired' line. Find me an adult who isn't tired! A genuine positive from exercise is you will have more drive and energy, afterwards - but never before.

Now that you have identified your limiting beliefs, how to overcome them and find your drive and know how to use your brain to get the results you want, you need to put a plan into action. (See below)

To sum up, exercise is for life, it is as essential to your health, as good food, and sleep are.

You need to sit on your motivation, always have your gym gear ready and then just go and do it. You will never regret it, and you always feel better after it, at least in the warmth of your shower afterwards.

Plan of action

* Put your classes, exercise times etc on a calendar hanging in the kitchen l Be aware and list all the reasons as to why you don't want to exercise l Be honest and realistic

* Make another list as to what you will get out of it

* Give yourself a few free passes and then get straight back to it

* Write motivating words like strong, fit, healthy, energised on a small piece of paper and keep it in your wallet. Every time you are close to avoiding exercise take it out and read it to yourself l Be proud of yourself l Be kind to yourself l Challenge and change any inner critic talk and begin to focus on what you are working on.

Write, commit, sign and datethe following:

* What exercise are you going to do? * When are you going to do it? * Why are you doing it? * When can this be healthily achieved?

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