Its pretty much common knowledge at this point that physical activity is likely to confer psychological benefits. I just wrote last week about how to take advantage of this effect by adopting a particularly convenient strength training program. This week, I want to focus a bit on how exactly adopting a strength and conditioning program might be psychologically helpful.
There are two main ways to think about the benefits of physical exercise on psychological health. They are distinct, but not necessarily in conflict with one another. Lets call one way the direct pathway, the other we’ll call the behavioral pathway. The direct pathway refers to the direct effect of exercise upon the body and mind. Physical activity mobilizes energy, lifts mood, and increases physical health in a wide variety of ways. Psychological benefits are a direct result of the activity. Many of us can relate to feeling better after a walk, or invigorated by a quick dip in the pool (or lake, ocean, pond, or other swimming hole). It also is intuitively easy to understand that if one feels an increase in health and fitness, they are likely to experience and increased psychological sense of well-being as well.
The behavioral pathway is the one I’d like to spend a bit more time on. In this way of looking at the impact of activity on psychological health, increased psychological well being is not directly a result of the activity. Rather, the activity is itself the result of utilizing particularly valuable psychological skills. In other words, in this way of looking at things, we aren’t specifically interested in the downstream effects of activity on psychological well-being. We are instead interested in the psychological skills required to get you and keep you moving, and building on those.
Another way of saying this is that the outcome, a state of psychological well-being, is less useful than the process of getting there. Master the process, and you won’t need to obsess about the outcome. So, what is required to engage in the process of making exercise a regular habit? There are many things, but the thing I’d most like to focus on is something that is often called willingness.
If you are currently inactive, there are probably a number of reasons why. Perhaps you work in a setting in which you are very sedentary, and don’t feel as though you have enough time once you go home. Maybe you’ve gotten out of shape, and the idea of intense movement is overwhelming. Maybe you just strongly dislike the physiological feeling associated with exertion.
I’m sure there’s more. “I’m embarrassed I am so out of shape”. “I’ll start tomorrow.” “I can’t believe how weak I’ve gotten.” Yada Yada Yada. And those are just the things that go through my mind. I’m sure many of you have your own.
Underneath under all those reasons and all of that chatter lies a simple, basic stance: an unwillingness to experience a particular type of discomfort. In this case, it might be physical discomfort, or the type that comes from embarrassment, or perhaps even shame.
I’d like to take a minute and point out how this is a problem that is far more general than dislike of exercise. If it is common for something as vital and important as exercise to be blocked by an unwillingness to experience unwanted feelings, is it common for that same stance to cause problems in other areas?
You bet it is. What if you become anxious whenever encountering new people? You might start avoiding situations in which you are likely to meet someone new. What if you feel uncomfortable when someone you care about is upset? You might be less likely to show them compassion and support during difficult times.
Living well requires being willing to do things that are uncomfortable and unpleasant. Often, we become so focused on changing how we think and feel that we forget that the formula for making positive changes is really much more simple than that: it involves being willing to make those positive changes, even when that provokes discomfort. It is a both/and, not an either or.
Exercise, then, can be viewed as intensive willingness practice. It could be willing to keep running for just one minute longer that you did last time. It could be starting small and getting up a few minutes earlier to stretch or take a brief walk. It doesn’t necessarily mean jumping straight into high intensity interval training, it just means being willing to jump into something that supports your health.
Opening up to and embracing discomfort is a fairly counter-intuitive strategy. But in many cases, it is just what the doctor ordered.