How to mentally prepare yourself for exercise

Getting mentally prepared for exercise? Many of you during this time of year will be thinking about starting a new fitness plan, some might be procrastinating this idea, while others might have already started to successfully fulfill this new years prophecy! Perhaps a few of us have over indulged at Christmas, had a bit too much Christmas pudding, cheese or one two many glasses of mulled wine. The New Year for some of us will mark a new you, resolutions are made, is it time to lose those extra pounds? Time to get fit, and time to get in shape?

Or just time to enjoy exercise and the benefits it provides us, not just physically, but mentally. The question is, how do we go about this in the most effective way? Whatever your status, your age, your job or your background; I’m sure most of you can benefit from practicing some of these mental skills listed below. The mental preparation and planning is pretty much as important as fulfilling the actually exercise itself, are you in the right mind set, and are you doing it for the right reasons?


1. Mental Preparation & Self Reflection – The Why?

I suggest we start reflecting on our own thoughts and objectives and focusing on why exactly we want to be doing more exercise. If we cannot wholly understand the mental and physical benefits of exercise, then we won’t really have any motivational drive behind our fitness plans. I will often ask elite athletes to write down all the positive and beneficial outcomes of their training efforts. It is good to remind ourselves about the positive factors and the rewards in which exercise and the pain that comes with it provides. The philosophy and approach that underpins my work is person-centred, whereby I will always hold an unconditional positive regard for the client and use accurate empathy towards them. Within this environment the individuals thus must be comfortable enough to be encouraged to get to really know and understand themselves, and eventually to believe in knowing they can attain their goals.

In order to change our behavior patterns, (i.e our exercise routines,) we must first focus and reflect on our current mental thoughts. We should aim to change or manipulate our thought processes first, (try to remove negative thoughts and accentuate positive ones). This should then lead to helping us to successfully change our bad habits and start executing new exercise behaviours. These exercise behaviour changes should hopefully be more significant and successful once the thinking processes have been structured. The aim here would be to attain a more permanent life style change with the right attitude and perspective founding it. In comparison, if we do not correctly and thoroughly mentally prepare for these behavioral changes (exercise plan), we can become easily negligent and will start to find excuses rather easily, this will lead towards poor commitment and poor execution.

young woman reflecting on her reasons to start exercising

2. Motivation – The How To?

Once we have acquired our reasoning behind why we have set out to achieve our objectives, we then need to focus on how we can actually utilise and maintain these exercise goals over a period of time. The Self Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) is based on human well-being and personal growth, whereby autonomy, competence and relatedness need to be satisfied in order to influence an individuals achievement setting. People who are more self-determined (those who have more control over their own behaviours) have a greater likelihood of acquiring more adaptive outcomes in the achievement setting. Athletes are more likely to attain their goals if they are intrinsically motivated, competence plays a key role here whereby the individual must know they are capable (with the confidence) of achieving what they set out to originally do. Sometimes we can be externally regulated, for example if an individual says they are starting the gym in response to a negative comment about their weight. Individuals with negative thoughts founding their fitness plans will be in less control and will be more vulnerable to maladaptive outcomes such as over training or even burnout, (Lemyre et al., 2006). Therefore research has shown that it is valuable to identify your achievement motivation and the meaning you place on the achievement before you actually start training. 

thumbs up for exercise and a new fitness routine


3.  Goal Setting – The How Will I?

One of most common mental skills utilised within exercise psychology interventions would be the use of a structured goal setting program, consultants will often use goal setting programs to enhance motivation. Research (O’Hearn and Gatz, 2002) has supported the view that if we set out detailed goals before our training, then we are more likely to actually attain our initial goals. The first thing to do is set your main fitness or weight loss goal / target and work out when you want this to be attained. Then get out your diaries and start making end of month goals leading up to this, quite frequently during consultancy with athletes we will do a goal setting program during each season, year or per training block. Funnel these goals down into more and more detail, so eventually you will have end of week diet and exercise goals and then daily goals. Re-visit, revise and change these daily training or diet-related goals each week according to your lifestyle and work commitments, as long as your weekly and monthly goals are attained. Don’t forget to be realistic at the same time!

4. Mental Imagery – The ‘I Will, I Can’

The use of mental imagery techniques can be extremely effective when trying to set and attain new exercise goals. Research has concluded that when athletes used more mental imagery skills before their training, their game strategies, mental toughness, self-confidence and motivational attitudes all seemed to develop in accordance with these new learnt skills ( Munroe-Chandler et al 2007a). Lie down in a quiet room, close the eyes and imagine going through the transitions before, during and after your work out. Think and look at how great it feels, and how great you look and reflect positively on all these different responses to this mental image. Try to visualise affirmative thoughts and feelings, during this process you can start to incorporate auditory, kinesthetic and tactile responses to this image. In order to achieve the most effective results try to frequently use these mental imagery skills throughout your exercise plan, not just before you start.

vsualizing the results of exercise

These psychological mental skills can be practiced when getting mentally prepared for exercise as well as by anyone who is trying to achieve something. Deci and Ryan (1985) concluded that athletes with stronger sport psychological skills possessed more intrinsic types of motivation. Thus if individuals are motivated by the pleasurable concepts of exercise (mental and physical), then they are more inclined to repeat and continue these behaviours. Finally, one must always remember that we should be changing out behaviors for ourselves, for the pure fact of enjoyment and fun, for any personal reasons and for no body else’s benefit.

Hope you enjoyed reading article on ‘Getting mentally prepared for exercise’

(image credit: img4-1.realsimple, smarta, faqs) 

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