How To Trick Yourself Into Working Out
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
Chris, a coaching client I hadn’t seen for two years, reached out to me a couple of months back. I couldn’t think what he might need help with. Our work before had finished when Chris had just started a dream new job at an advertising agency and he had moved in with his girlfriend, Kat. Life was on the up for him, or so it seemed.
When I saw Chris slumped on his sofa, he looked so different from the neat, young executive I’d worked with before. Unshaven, his hair unkempt, it was pretty obvious Chris had put on some weight, too. Before he’d even said a word, his awkward body language spoke volumes about his state of mind.
“I’ve been so bored and stressed during the lockdown that I’ve found it hard to control what and when I eat,” he told me, adding he’d put on more than 10kg since March and had “not really” exercised. “I don’t like how I look, but I can’t seem to help myself,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Chris is hardly alone in feeling this way. A recent King’s College London and Ipsos Mori survey interviewed more than 2,200 people on how the lockdown has affected them – 48 per cent reported they had put on weight and a similar number said it had impacted on their mood.
“I think I look a bit like a sack of potatoes that is bursting at the seams,” Chris said, gazing down at himself. He explained how his girlfriend, Kat, was concerned enough about his weight gain and messy appearance that she was passive-aggressively leaving fitness magazines around their place.
The proliferation of hard-to-attain men’s physiques on social media and in muscle magazines that show men with exaggerated V-shaped torsos, low body fat and over-pumped muscles are fuelling a very male form of body dissatisfaction, one men often find hard to talk about.
Of course, there are few images more potent than a man in peak physical condition to make regular-shaped guys with beginner dad-bods feel inadequate. I know how such pictures affect me – they make me think I must work out harder and eat more vegetables and I’ll start tomorrow. But making changes overnight isn’t as easy as it sounds.
New research into positive-habit forming is, however, changing how we think about creating routines like taking regular exercise and eating healthily. In his recent book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way To Break Bad Habits, author Mr James Clear says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”. In other words, make your environment as supportive as possible to the new habit you’re trying to form. This will massively help your chances of sustaining positive change. Having lofty goals and good intentions will unlikely be enough to kick you off the comfort of your own sofa and into your local park.
“Turn your home into a habit-supporting environment. Anything that distracts you should be put away so you no longer see it”
It takes just three weeks of repeating an activity for a new neural circuit to form in our brains – thus, creating a habit. Just 21 days of leaving your house every couple of days to walk, cycle or run for half an hour is enough to trick your body into thinking it’s natural. The added bonus? Aerobic activity has the benefit of lifting our mood as if we’d taken a mild dose of anti-depressants. Routines shouldn’t feel like drudgery or a dose of nasty medicine; but your new normal. In fact, with time and the right environment, it can feel harder to stay in bed than pulling your gym kit on and heading out the door.
I explained the idea to Chris who grasped it right away. “So, I just need to have things around me like my sneakers or dumbbells, so I can exercise easily without thinking about it too much?” That’s pretty much it, I said, adding that he should probably bin the confetti of pizza delivery and takeaway menus clipped to his fridge that I had spotted through my computer screen behind him.
“Turn your home into a habit-supporting environment,” I said. “Anything that distracts you should be ditched or at least put away so you no longer see it.”
We scheduled to meet after a few weeks to give Chris a chance to put his new strategy in place. When I saw him again, he looked more like his old self and I was pleased to see the food menus previously stuck on his fridge had disappeared, too.
“How’s it all going?” I asked.
“Well,” said Chris. “I really think I’ve nailed it. On the days I’m exercising, I actually sleep in my running gear the night before. When I wake up all I have to do is pull on my running shoes and I’m ready to go!”
A little extreme, perhaps, but his words remind me of an Aristotle quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I share this with Chris, who I notice has also tamed his unkempt hair and his defeated slouch seems to have disappeared – along with the shaming muscle magazines, too.