The Psychology of Exercise


In my line of work, I deal with many folks coming to me looking for help dealing with depression, stress or anxiety.  I give each and every one of them what I call the “invariant prescription.”  This simply means that it never varies.  No matter who I am talking to or how they describe their various situations and symptoms, they all get the same prescription – exercise.


To me it’s obvious why I would give such a prescription, but just in case it’s not, oblige me to state the obvious.  Physical exercise is one of the most beneficial things one can do to achieve optimal physical and mental health – period.


Let’s begin with the benefits.  One trip out onto the internet, Googling “benefits of exercise” yielded 2.5 million results.  I was able to collect a plethora of benefits in just a few minutes.  Nearly every aspect of physical and mental functioning has been found to benefit from exercise.  Every bodily system has been found to benefit from regular exercise.  One can quite literally sum up the benefits by stating that nearly every facet of human life and healthy functioning is positively affected by exercise.


Interestingly, to this date I have never had anyone refute the invariant prescription.  Nearly all of my clients whole-heartedly agree.  If they are not already exercising, I usually hear something like: “I know, I need to, I should but…”  I don’t get arguments about the validity of the invariant prescription, rather I get reasons why it is not a part of their daily regimen.


If it were as easy as simply providing a list of benefits, then I should stop right here, leave you with a list and wish you well.  Consider the following introduction to an article on the benefits of exercise:


Need motivation to exercise? Here are seven ways exercise can improve your life — starting today!  Want to feel better, have more energy and perhaps even live longer? Look no further than old-fashioned exercise.  The merits of exercise — from preventing chronic health conditions to boosting confidence and self-esteem — are hard to ignore. And the benefits are yours for the taking, regardless of age, sex or physical ability. Need more convincing? Check out seven specific ways exercise can improve your life.”


It sounds to me like the author of this article believes that “convincing” information about the benefits of exercise ought to provide the (or at least some) motivation to make exercise a part of one’s life.  Nice, if it were true, but I think you know better.  Knowing and doing are two completely different things.


Hear me clearly!  I am not saying that providing knowledge of the benefits of exercise is futile or worthless, I am simply saying it does not have much efficacy when it comes to developing motivation to actually begin and sustain an exercise program.  Simple observation should be enough to verify this.  There is something much more profound at play.


If exercise is truly so beneficial (which it obviously is), then why is it so hard for people to begin and sustain an exercise program?  If it truly is possible for one who has thought about or attempted, without success, to actually learn the skills to make it happen (which it definitely is) then how is this accomplished?


The answer to these questions is the real impetus for  examining the psychology of exercise.  It is my belief that anybody can be transformed into someone who not only exercises regularly but actually enjoys and looks forward to exercising.  Having the motivation to exercise is not a characteristic – like having blue eyes, or brown hair – it is, rather, a skill to be learned and developed.  The only requirement is to have enough intelligence to be able to process information effectively  and the willingness to entertain points of view that may be quite different from what you have come to know as “the truth.”  (If you are able to read and understand this article so far, you definitely have the requirements.)


The only difference between those who exercise faithfully and those who do not is a set of beliefs and internal thinking that either supports the execution of the behavior, or doesn’t support it – that’s all.  No mystery, no magic, no genetic or biological differences – but, rather, simply, a frame of mind, a conceptual framework, a belief system that either supports exercise or doesn’t.  This, my friend, is quite subject to change.


The trouble is that most of us have no clue as to where to begin.  We’ve never questioned the validity of our own beliefs, never considered the fact that our beliefs can be changed, never allowed for the possibility that what we have come to know as “the truth” could possibly be “not the truth at all.”  And even if we have come that far, we’ve never contemplated actually devising a plan to identify what we believe, scrutinize what we believe and set the wheels in motion to alter those beliefs.


And why would we?  Most of the “thinking” that drives what we believe and ultimately how we behave is buried deep in the recesses of our subconscious, quietly running the show, while we consciously “think” we are making decisions independent of its influence.  Until we learn to tap into our subconscious and figure out what is really driving the train, we chug along, virtually oblivious to the powerful influence of our complex, intricate, powerful belief system, hence the illusion that we “just are that way”, as in “I just have no will-power.”  Think about the irony; our belief systems are so well-protected by our oblivion, that we actually believe that nothing can be done to dismantle them – that’s the insidious paradox.


It’s not that the enormous amount of “thinking” that has been relegated to the recesses of the subconscious (belief system) is negative.  Actually, the totality of how it works is really quite positive.  It is quite a useful system when it comes to learning.  Without the ability of our subconscious to quietly go about its business, we wouldn’t be able to drive a car and talk on a cell phone at the same time.  Driving demands a fairly complex set of “thinking” that can quite literally “run on its own” while we have a meaningful conversation on a cell phone (not that I am advocating doing such, I am simply making a point.)  In such situations we rely on the subconscious to process information regarding speed, braking, spatial relationships, peripheral vision, cues of danger, brake lights, etc.  Unfortunately, this is the same system that keeps us riveted in our “habitual” behaviors.  It’s virtually of a double-edged sword.


Here’s the good news.  Our belief systems, albeit deep, hidden and powerful, are accessible and malleable if approached with the right strategy.  In fact, the very power of the system, once harnessed and playing in one’s favor, can be a formidable positive force.  Imagine needing to summon the “will-power”, if you will, to stop exercising, or the will power to “lie around on the couch all day.”  Sound crazy??  Not once one fully understands the “nature of the beast.”