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Having Trouble Exercising? Cultivate a Mindful Habit

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

exerciseIt’s common knowledge at this point that exercise is good for mental health. So why is it that 60% of people don’t regularly exercise and many don’t exercise at all? After all, it’s a natural stress reducer and sends the message internally to us that we care about ourselves. Every single day we’re making decisions on what we are going to do and what we are not going to do. So why don’t the majority of us make decisions to do things we know will make us feel better? What is the disconnect and where is our self control?

While there may be many underlying reasons of low self worth that may be attributed to us not taking care of ourselves, the focus of this blog is going to be on self control. More often now researchers are describing self control as a muscle that can be built up or depleted. There are so many things that we have to exert self control for in a day. These may include our own spazmatic toddlers, a demanding boss, or in today’s economic atmosphere, controlling our own pocketbooks. At the end of the day, people are feeling that they’ve used up their self control and there isn’t enough left for exercise.

The problem here is that without the natural stress reducer of exercise, our stress makes us less calm, less focused, and less effective to get the things done we think we need to get done day in and day out. So how do we flip the tables on our thinking and exert some self control to integrate this free stress reducing activity into our lives?

Well, remember, self control can be thought of as a muscle so we need to start small and build up. We may not just get out there and start exercising. Instead, maybe we’ll begin by getting up in the morning at the same time. If you’re already doing that, make note of it and then try some other things including noticing when you’re slouching at work and sitting up straight. 

You might even start a practice of eating dinner a few times a week without the TV on and talking to your partner instead. A popular one I like to bring up is scheduling in your calendar a couple 3-minute breathing spaces throughout your day where you become present as you simply tune into your breath coming in and out of your body.

Here is a sample breathing space to do right now:

Breath as an Anchor

To practice See-Touch-Go which is this idea of noticing when your mind is wandering off something and being able to touch it for a moment, and gently go back to where your intention is.

Let’s practice that right now. 

Go ahead and get into a comfortable position – just seated or lying down, whatever you want and you’re welcome to gently close your eyes or if you want to keep them open, keep a dull gaze toward the floor.  The idea is this is an internal practice.  Gently beginning to get a sense of your breath….noticing where you experience it the most – this may be the tip of the nose, the chest, the abdomen… just resting awareness on the breath and seeing if you can bring an attitude of curiosity to this practice. This is the idea of noticing the breath as if for the very first time.  Breathing in and just noticing what it’s like to breath in….and breathing out and noticing what it’s like to breath out as it’s happening with each breath.

For the next minute, practice breath as an anchor and whenever your mind wanders off and you notice it, see if you can notice where it wanders off to, touch the thought or image that’s there, and gently go back to the breath.   You may do this over and over again.  Practicing See, Touch, Go.

You can do anything you want; the point is just to make self control a part of your daily life. Then, when you feel you’ve got a bit of self control as a routine, begin to slowly integrate exercise when you feel the time is right. 

A last point I’ll make is that support is also important in getting over the inertia of exercise. You may choose to hire a personal trainer or get a work out buddy, but remember, at the end of the day, making self control a part of your daily life is up to you. If your trainer or buddy is sick and you rely on them for this support, your practice will likely begin to slip as well.