So not a bad end to the year with a front page in The Telegraph Weekend section talking about how getting fit starts with the mind. If you want a little taster of my tips on how-to read on and don't miss next week for the second helping!
Sometimes, your approach to health and fitness needs a whole new mindset. Today is the day when we face up to our new year resolutions, particularly when it comes to our bodies. We will be different in 2017, we tell ourselves. We will be fitter, leaner, more effective in our lives.
This is usually something we do with a heavy heart and a sense of doom. Whatever our chosen route of diet or exercise, we’re pretty sure that it will be no fun, and that ultimately, as in other years, it just won’t work.
But this year, leave all that behind and embrace a new approach. The 'Change your mind, change your body’ plan is not a diet-and-exercise programme. It’s a new-way-of-thinking programme. The only resolution you need make is to alter the way you think about your body and about exercise, and enjoy the results.
You are a grown-up. You have a pretty good idea of what you should be eating. You know that lean protein and vegetables are good for you. You also know that enjoying some cake, or a drink, with friends is a very important part of life. This plan is not about dieting; it’s about changing your mindset in regard to your body.
Choose your food thoughtfully and make sure you eat enough. If you eat too little while you increase the amount of exercise you do, your metabolism will slow down to conserve what fuel your body does have, your energy levels will dip, you will struggle to increase muscle tone and you won’t get the results you are after.
You may think the way your mind works has little to do with starting a new exercise regime. But these tricks are all crucial to your attitude towards exercise and healthy living, and that is the whole point of this plan. You need a different approach to this perennial problem because, as Einstein may or may not have said, insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different outcome – in this case, starting another stringent but unsustainable diet-and-exercise regime in January, getting a short-term improvement, then sliding back to old habits before Easter. Change the way you think about exercise and you will be on the way to a long-term, sustainable lifestyle change which will be of immense benefit for your health and wellbeing, both physical and mental.
As we get older, obviously, our bodies change. If we lose flexibility and strength, we tend to blame ageing and think that there is nothing we can do about it, so we don’t even try. But being fit and healthy has less to do with age and more to do with how we lead our lives. Whatever change you want to make in your life, you need to get your mind into the right place first. You may have heard the saying, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” It is very true.
You may dispute this. You may think that it is the situation that you find yourself in – whether it is the car breaking down or your waistband being too tight – that dictates what you feel about things. But it doesn’t. It is your thoughts that do that. They’re the middle-man between any given situation and how you feel about it. And because you have control over your mind, you can always choose a different thought, and that will affect how you feel about things.
Yes, it can be tricky to change your thoughts about any given situation. You may not want to think differently – and it’s your choice. But once you realise that it’s what you are thinking that is causing you pain, you may be prepared to try it.
And in order to do it, your new thought has to be something you can believe, and something that makes you feel better than the old thought. But with practice, it can be done.
Many people get into the habit of hating their body but – newsflash – you can’t actually hate yourself slimmer or fitter. Life is much easier, and change is easier, if you love your body. You may think that this an unlikely scenario, but go back to point 2 above. Begin by listing the good things about your body; start to appreciate it for the things it can do, rather than focusing on what it can’t, or what you don’t like. Find a spark of happiness and build on that. If you don’t like your body, it is because of cultural brainwashing. Why on earth would you hate your own body? It is you. Is it because it doesn’t look like an 18-year-old model? That is just a thought that your brain has made up. Thoughts like this are not solid truths. You can unpick them and replace them with better thoughts. It will take time, but once you appreciate where the problem lies – not with your body, but with your thoughts – you can start to change.
As soon as you catch yourself thinking an unhelpful negative thought such as, “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” or “I could never find the time,” get in the habit of challenging it.
Why won’t an exercise plan work for you? Are you physically unable to move? Have you never got the time to try anything new? Try on some different thoughts, just for size. Could you try just the easy versions of the exercises here? Could you find a way to make time? Could you prioritise exercise over, say, watching television? Could you exercise while watching television? Think creatively, as if encouraging a reluctant friend rather than yourself.
Closely allied to your feelings about your body is the way that you talk to yourself (we all do, even if not out loud). What are the things you say to yourself? It’s all too common to be saying things like, “I’m useless, I’m overweight, I hate myself, I never stick to anything”; all negative, unkind sentiments. If your best friend was trying to make the changes to their life that you are contemplating now, wouldn’t you choose kinder words of encouragement and enthusiasm? “A new plan? That’s a great idea!” You get the drift.
You don’t have to leap in and try to do the hardest version of any exercise, then beat yourself up when you find it difficult. If you are trying to learn a new skill, like a new language, you know that you need to start at the beginning and put in regular practice to make progress. It’s the same here. If you want to learn to do a pull-up don’t just try it once, find it too difficult, then decide you “can’t” do it. Use a tactic called “regress to progress”. Pretend you are a complete beginner. Take a step back, try an easier adaptation and do what you can. When the simpler version of an exercise becomes easy, that is the time to move on to the next stage.
Remember: consult your doctor before starting a new exercise programme if you have any specific concerns regarding injuries or long-standing health issues.
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