Is exercise easier if you are fit?
In a November 2014 TEDxNewYork talk, social psychologist Emily Balcetis discussed why some people struggle more to exercise than others. Her team’s answer was found not simply in how fit or unfit a person is, but in their perceptions. Balcetis said, “Some people literally see exercise as more difficult, while some see it as easier.”
Balcetis said self encouragement is important, but not enough to make a difference. According to the results of her team’s research, unfit people saw the distance to an exercise goal as longer, unless they were highly motivated to get into better shape. Those who were more motivated to get in shape saw the distance as close, if not slightly closer than those who were already in better shape.
Equally important was their focus on the finish line, the goal. Those who kept their eyes on the goal saw the finish line 30 percent closer than it actually was. In addition, those people moved 23 percent faster on their way to the goal and perceived 17 percent less exertion in themselves.
If you’re trying to start a fitness program, what does that mean for you?
First, set a goal, and make it achievable so you will be motivated to get there. If you can barely get off the couch at the end of the day, your first goal should not be to run a marathon. Your first goal should be much simpler, such as to walk to the front door and back, or maybe the mailbox. It should be easy enough that you say to yourself, “I can do that!”
Once you are able to regularly and easily attain that first goal, make a new goal. If you can now walk to the mailbox and back every day, double the distance, like to the corner and back. Don’t condemn yourself if your goal seems too small or you feel like you’re not moving fast enough. Every little bit helps.
Whenever you feel comfortable about your movement, add a new goal. Finally, when you think you have built a foundation of confidence, make an even larger fitness goal.
For example, if after two months you can walk two blocks and back, you could then set a goal measured in minutes or miles. Like 15 minutes or a half a mile. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need a landmark. I can easily walk to the sculpture in my local park and back. Turns out, that’s about a half a mile. If I instead said I was going to walk a half a mile, I would feel like it is too difficult.
Perception is a powerful weapon. We can use it to our advantage, or we can let it defeat us. We use it to our advantage when we set more frequent, manageable goals, celebrate them when we achieve them and then make new goals to replace the old.
As you progress, don’t think you can skip goal making (or keeping your eyes on them). As Balcetis’ research showed, this is key. Even the most fit among us need a goal. That is why there are so many races available to join.
When we hit setbacks, we can lose all the momentum, however. When that happens (and it happens to all of us at one time or another), first assess your situation. In most cases, you won’t be set back to the original starting point. Take a little time to acknowledge and grieve all the progress you lost. Then reset your goals, focus on them and get going. You can do this!