Since our behaviors are largely the result of our thoughts, the way we think about fitness and activity often determines whether or not we’ll choose an active lifestyle. One of the most subtle forms of sabotage to any fitness commitment is all-or-nothing thinking.
Here are two examples:
- You hear the latest guidelines for the recommended amount of physical activity and think “I’ll never be able to get that much exercise!” So you decide to put off the whole exercise thing until “later” because it seems like the little you would be able to do now wouldn’t be worth it anyway.
- You make a new commitment to exercise 5 days a week. It’s a struggle the first week to get in all five days but you do it. On the next Monday, you’re still so sore from last week that you decide to skip that day. Then you skip Tuesday, too. By Wednesday, you’re thinking “Well, this has been a terrible week so far so I’ll just forget this one and start fresh next Monday.” But when Monday rolls around you’re feeling guilty, defeated and unmotivated so you don’t start again at all.
All-or-nothing thinking wreaks havoc on our ability to become the fit, energetic person we want to be. It keeps us mentally focused on what we are not doing rather than what we are doing which creates guilt, frustration and disappointment. This emotional state saps our motivation and self-confidence so we end up with a completely sedentary lifestyle or, at best, an on again-off again relationship with activity that is not very effective or fulfilling. (Michelle’s note: this is what I call yo-yo exercising.)
This type of thinking is a set up for failure because it demands consistent perfection–and real life just isn’t perfect. So when those inevitable imperfections happen – our gym partner cancels on us, the weather turns bad, we discover we’re much less fit than we knew – we fall off the wagon or decide not to get on in the first place. In essence, if you’re an all-or-nothing thinker, you may often get nothing way more than you get it all.
If you think your relationship with physical activity may be suffering due to all-or-nothing thinking, consider these suggestions:
Notice. The first step in changing ineffective thinking patterns (or any habit) is to notice when you’re doing it. Begin to pay close attention to the language you use when thinking or talking about exercise and activity. Be on the lookout for words that describe one extreme end of a spectrum such as: always, never, perfect, terrible, awful, best and worst.
Stop. When you notice yourself thinking or speaking in all-or-nothing terms, take a mental pause simply to recognize what you were just doing. Consider keeping a small pad of paper with you for a few days to jot down the all-or-nothing thinking right when you notice it. Investigate. After a mental pause and deep breath, ask yourself: What is this type of language doing for me? Am I going to get what I really want if I continue to think this way? How could I make my statements more flexible and positive? Remember to remain nonjudgmental as you investigate what’s really going on. All-or-nothing thinking is not good or bad and you are not good or bad for using it; it is simply an ineffective form of thinking that may be preventing you from getting what you really want.
Choose. Think of a replacement for the all-or-nothing thinking or language – something that is more moderate, realistic and inspiring. Instead of “I’ll never be able to do as much exercise as I’m supposed to so why even bother?” try “Any physical activity I do above and beyond what I do now will help. I’ll start small and see what happens.” It’s okay if this feels a little contrived or inauthentic at first; as you practice and have success with this, you’ll begin to notice that you’re actually saying what you feel, rather than just saying things as part of a process to change a behavior.
Repeat. Training your mind to create healthier thought processes is like learning a new skill – repetition is the key. When you’re ready to give it a try, make a commitment to try these steps regularly for a few days. In a surprisingly short time, you should notice a change.
If you’re having trouble starting or staying consistent with a fitness routine, get rid of the notion that you must do it “right” or not at all. And remember three things:
- Some activity is always better than none.
- There’s no perfect exercise; whatever you enjoy and will do regularly is a good choice.
- You may not be as fit as you wish you were right now, but the sooner you start moving, the sooner you’ll get there!