How To Change Your Exercise Behaviour From The Inside Out
One of my first ever personal training clients was a guy named Greg. He’d been told by his Doctor that he should start exercising and came to me knowing he should lose a few kilos and start strength training.
Notice the shoulds?
I prescribed him a great training program, hitting all the bases of cardio, strength and flexibility. I provided information about calories and macronutrients, and continuously highlighted the benefits of exercise, good nutrition and sleep.
Greg trained for four weeks, had some progress, then I never heard from him again.
If I was to have another Greg as a client, I’d take a different approach.
The Traditional Outside-In Approach
There are three components to the Outside-In approach:
Unfortunately, these things make no DIFference to people’s long term exercise behaviour. They are the dominant ways we have been trying to convince people to exercise, and yet, when looking at the data, it has been miserably unsuccessful in helping people change.
According to the National Health Survey (2015), 44.5% of Australians don't meet the recommended physical activity guidelines.
The thing is, people don’t maintain exercise over a long period of time for the primary reason of reducing risk of chronic degenerative disease (like cancer or coronary heart disease) or other long-term outcomes.
They may start for that reason, but they don’t maintain for that reason.
What the Outside-In model looks like in real life is:
Health benefits/education - where we basically try to encourage you to exercise because of all the good things that will happen to you.
Incentives - or rewards to keep you motivated (when they actually do the opposite - link to MAPS)
Fitness assessment/exercise prescription - which would work if you were a robot
These ways of helping people aren’t bad, they just take the wrong perspective and will be relatively unsuccessful in most people.
And in some cases, they can have the opposite effect. For example, educating people on all of the benefits of exercise without any behaviour change leads to upset, avoidance and defensiveness.
I’ll have a strong guess that you already know the benefits of exercise. We all do. It’s been hammered into us for ages.
Then why don’t more people exercise?
The Motivational Mindset Shift
Most people start exercising for some kind of product-related benefit, like losing weight or reducing risk of disease to live longer. They lock onto some type of outcome they want from it.
We call this the Starter Mindset.
But most people need something more to keep going.
They need to evolve into the Maintainer Mindset.
People who move from a starter to a regular exerciser have identified some type of process or experience with exercise which draws them back again and again and again. They have changed their focus from outcomes, which are mostly external, to a focus on the process, which is internal.
This happens gradually over a continuum.
This is the thing I couldn’t help Greg with. He had the Starter Mindset, and it got him moving initially, but it wasn’t enough to keep him coming back.
I feel a little better knowing I’m not the only one. This analysis of 127 published exercise interventions show that people can get started okay. We know the benefits and understand exercise is good for us now and in the future.
But when the interventions finished, most people went back to how they were before...
Time to try something different...
Flipping the switch:
The Inside-Out Approach
Another old client of mine, David, also began training with me after some high cholesterol results from his Doctor.
Rather than prescribing an exercise program and bombarding him with information, I simply listened to what he had to say. What he enjoys doing. If he has any positive exercise experiences in the past. How exercise could fit into all the other areas of his life.
This approach worked a lot better.
Dave began strength training, but also took up running, which he used to do a lot of before he had kids. He found a running group and loved it. He got really into his strength training and the specific techniques of barbell movements.
Over time, he got involved in the process of exercise, finding opportunity to learn and master new things, meet new people and find enjoyment in it all.
He was able to change his motivational mindset and now sees exercise as an integral part of who he is.
Crafting the Maintainer Mindset
You might be thinking, “okay, I want to get this Maintainer Mindset, but what do I actually have to do to get there?”
Good question, and it’s tough because it will be different for everyone.
Sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it takes some creativity.
Here are 3 ways you can craft a Maintainer Mindset from the Inside Out.
1. Tune in to the Process
Few people exercise for any length of time without the additional motive of sport or play.
The picture below shows the process of moving from jogger to runner to racer.
It doesn’t have to be running, it can be any exercise. The jogger is the Starter Mindset. As you begin to get into it, you start looking for meaning in your own life through exercise. And then you move to the racer mentality, which doesn’t mean you compete against others, it’s that you’re competing against yourself, challenging and testing yourself in an exercise environment.
To help develop this transition you can:
Be mindful - I’d argue that many exercise in a very mindless way, they want it to become a habit and that’s it, they’re done. Unfortunately, a habit can only form once you gain mastery over it, and that takes focus. If you’re always watching TV or reading a book while exercising, you’ll never develop the Maintainer Mindset.
Minimise comparisons with others - only compare yourself to yourself and see progress that way.
Take it step-by-step - start small, start slow, and build your confidence upon consecutive successes.
2. Find Your Flow
Have you ever been completely in the zone, where everything just clicks, it feels wonderful and an hour flies by like a minute?
This is Flow.
It’s known as a ‘peak experience’.
Talking to exercise maintainers, they often talk about being in this state. Not every time, but it’s part of their experience. Dave found flow in his running, where time would pass him by and he was totally in the zone.
As someone trying to make exercise a part of their life, you want to generate the conditions for flow. It happens when your skills in the situations and the challenges of the situation are in balance.
Being in flow helps you enjoy the activity for its own sake. Knowing what matters is not what you’re getting from the benefits, but what you’re getting from the experience itself.
Ways to get more flow into your exercise include:
Set clear goals every time - making sure they aren’t too easy or too hard.
Find ways to measure progress - and get immediate feedback
Concentrate on what you are doing - which relates to mindfulness
Develop the skills necessary - exercising can be difficult, your body is complex. Even a treadmill has hundreds of settings and can be hard to run on the first time you use it.
Raise the stakes if you get bored - increase the challenge of what you’re doing. More advanced exercise movements, trying something new like swimming if you always run, higher intensities etc.
3. Develop Inner Synergy
The renowned author Stephen Covey talks about the 4 main components of life, the physical, the social, the spiritual and the mental. The most powerful experiences in life are when you can synergise these 4 together.
You can see how if you can connect exercise to social, mental and spiritual aspects, then you can develop a very strong motivating force to keep you continuously coming back to exercise regularly.
Check out how my client David, as a 49-year-old exercise maintainer, talks about it,
“It wasn’t long before I realised that I can do this… It was self-fulfilment. I would feel physically really, really good and very, very calm. I found out how much it reduced stress. I was really surprised at that. I didn’t expect it. I was really looking at getting in shape and losing weight and getting stronger, but the calming was really something positive.”
What this means is that regular exercisers are very good at using exercise in a synergistic way to enhance other areas of their life. Dave was able to notice how calm he felt, and how it impacted the rest of his life. Rather than focus on how much weight he was losing or how great exercise is for his disease risk reduction, he could see the bigger picture.
How could you do the same?
Apply the things you learn in exercise to other parts of life - enhanced concentration, mood and focus can be used in your work.
Notice your energy to do more things - especially when it comes to things like playing with your kids.
Gain social connection through exercise - it doesn’t have to be a solo endeavour, and it’ll integrate better if you do it with others. Group exercise, personal training, team sports - anything which includes a connection to others.
Integrate movement with other life needs - exercise can be a fundamental way in which you learn, explore, discover and gain meaning.
It’s not the Outside-In approaches which keep people going. According to the research, convincing and cajoling really doesn’t work. We need to switch to the Inside-Out approach to see some long-term behaviour change.
It’s hard work, which is why so many don’t exercise regularly.
But for your sake, and everyone who loves you, it’s worth it.
I believe the big takeaway from this article is enjoyment. For anything to stick, you have to find some type of joy in the experience. You have to gain more than you give.
If you need help working through this process, I’d be happy to coach you through it.
Covey, S. R. (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster
Csikszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row
Department of Health, 21 November 2017, Physical Activity https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-active-evidence.htm
Dishman R K, Buckworth J. Increasing physical activity: a quantitative synthesis. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1996; 28(6): 706-719.
Jogger-runner-racer graphic - I can't remember where I heard this one. If you know, please tell me.