Brains over brawn


Sometimes fitness goals squat like an immovable boulder. The scale won’t budge, pants won’t cooperate, and mirrors don’t forgive. Over time we become despondent as best efforts fall short. Without a change in tactics, frustration turns to complacency and, eventually, permanence.

According to the American Psychological Association, lack of willpower is the number one reason people abandon their goals. We try, we stall, we fail, we give up.

With nose to the grindstone and clenched teeth, successful people stay the course by adopting creative new tactics. Many elite athletes, for example, rely on guided discovery and imagery to condition their brains for success. Mental rehearsal has become an accepted strategy for boosting performance to new levels.

We have a client who has been trying to break his chin-up record for weeks. Each session he shows up eager to shoulder the boulder. The effort that got him to nine reps, however, wouldn’t get him to 10. In the end, the solution wasn’t in his biceps but in his head.

As my client stood under the chin-up bar one session, I suggested a new approach. I asked him to close his eyes and visualize a full set of 10 reps — up and down with ease, confidence, enthusiasm and success. He closed his eyes and laughed off a few seconds of mock visualization.

I dug in, set my watch for 60 seconds, and prepared to wait as he performed the mental drill. We could spend the minute in awkward silence or he could close his eyes and imagine success.

After a full minute of visualization (and some pumped-up barking from his trainer) he pulled out 12 reps — not 10 but 12; boulder moved. (A second client who had experienced similar struggles also added reps to his chin-up portfolio by using visualization.)

Another effective tool for moving things forward is distraction. Friends and motivating music can redirect the brain away from effort to something more enjoyable.

A study in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise reports that fast-paced music actually enhances exercise outcomes. According to the study, “Music can be a practical strategy to help insufficiently active people get more out of their HIIT workouts and may even encourage continued participation.”

Simply changing the background music from one format to another had a couple we train singing, laughing, and playing music trivia. As with the above example (and without them knowing it), their output increased significantly during the session.

Accountability is another helpful result-producing tool, as demonstrated in a recent exchange with a client trying to lose weight:

Client: I’m serving homemade pie to my friends tonight. Today will be my ‘cheat’ day.

Trainer: Great, enjoy. How many pieces will you be eating?

Client: One or two.

Trainer: One or two?

Client: One.

Trainer: Great, take a picture of your one piece and email it to me. What happens with the leftovers?

Client: Don’t worry I won’t eat any.

Trainer: What happens with the leftovers?

Client: I will put them in the basement fridge. I never go down there. My husband will eat it.

Trainer: Great, when is your next cheat day?

Client: In a week. Don’t worry, I will eat clean.

Trainer: Define ‘a week.’ Define ‘clean.’

As you can see, an absence of specifics and follow-up for someone trying to lose weight leaves the door wide open for failure. (For the record, she stuck to her guns as her husband nibbled away at the remaining dessert.)

There are many useful diet and exercise techniques that don’t involve calorie counting or working out that reap big benefits. The next time you’re looking to nudge the boulder, consider engaging you brain along with your muscle.

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