I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine in her 40s about exercise. She had been an avid and conscientious runner for many years, and then had kids and lost the drive (and the time). Nearly a decade out of the game, I asked her if she was feeling ready to get back to it. She shrugged, “I know, I need to. I just have to get off my lazy butt and do it!”
It was an innocuous conversation, not worth dissecting word-by-word. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like Kathy’s approach to exercise may ultimately make resuming it fairly difficult. For one thing, she tossed around a rather dangerous word: “need.” But it’s only really when a person is able to find a way to realistically and enjoyably integrate physical activity into day-to-day life, so that they want to exercise, that change is likely to take place. And my friend was also falsely assuming that making healthy choices is simply a matter of overcoming laziness.
Willing yourself to the gym “because I should” takes great effort, and may work for a while. We may convince ourselves to “just do it” — despite our intense desire not to — and that things will eventually get easier. But forcing yourself into anything can be exhausting, even with rewards in place. This is why paying people to exercise doesn’t work well. Studies suggests that financial incentives can increase exercise adherence in adults in the short term. After, say, six months, however, the effect decreases significantly. It’s a largely unsustainable approach — because paying someone neglects to address any intrinsic reasons for why people exercise, or don’t.
So, yes, Kathy needs to exercise — but why? Brushing aside the pat answers — for better health and to live longer — what purpose will exercise serve in her life? Or, put another way, how will better health help Kathy better live the life she’s imagined for herself?
Those who have a higher sense of purpose — knowing clearly what they’re trying to accomplish in life — tend to make healthier choices and more strongly adhere to exercise. They’re also less conflicted when it comes to making decisions between healthy and unhealthy options.
What one sees as their life purpose is of course going to vary by the individuals and could be anything from raising a strong family to making positive connections with others to empowering women to become great leaders. But focusing on the bigger picture can make everyday decisions easier.
Those who have this kind of guiding life purpose in mind, say University of Pennsylvania researchers who conducted a new study around this idea, likely experience less “decisional conflict when considering health advice” and even have less activity in brain regions associated with conflict processing. Staying fit and eating well yields greater health, which is needed for those who feel strongly about their life direction to stay the course. Knowing your ultimate destination takes the guesswork out of how to get there.
So in the spirit of better health, how can we arrive at a greater purpose and better understand the meaningful direction our lives can take? Here are two mental exercises to try that may help:
1. From Steven Hayes’, Kirk Strosahl’s and Kelly Wilson’s acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, framework, this exercise is called “What do you want your life to stand for?” Essentially they suggest imagining that you’ve died but are able to attend your funeral in spirit. What would you like those in your life who eulogize you to remember you for?
This should help you connect with particular values that you hold dear and determine if you’re headed in the right direction.
2. Visualize a bull’s eye target. If you’re living the way you want to all the time, you’re in the center; while if you’re not following your values or living in the way you wish, you’re farther away from the center. Ask yourself what is one thing you could do differently that may move you one ring closer to the bull’s eye? If helping others in need is important to you, for instance, consider how daily decisions that may seem small — from offering your grocery cart to an incoming shopper to giving loose change to the empty-pocketed — may bring you closer to the center.
Live richly. Take action in areas that align with your values. A former client of mine, a young father, claimed he wanted to be remembered as an “involved and active parent.” One example of this, for him, was throwing his kids in the air and watching them shriek in delight on their way back into his arms. This moment led to a heightened motivation at the gym: more strength meant higher throws, which meant more joy on his children’s faces. When we’re clear on our purpose (or purposes, as it needn’t be just one thing), it energizes us to place a premium on our personal health.
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Exercise and the Big Picture: Actively Pursuing Your Life Goals originally appeared on usnews.com