Self-Awareness and Defining Exercise Success

“I don’t like to exercise.”

Not long ago, I had a client say these very words right after we started meeting. In all fairness the client had explained that he ate a wholesome diet and was fairly active on weekends. The problem was that the “anti-exerciser” was still gaining weight, so he decided to see what it was like working with a trainer.

From my perspective, I thought it was good that the client was aware of what “healthy” looked like for him – and that he was clear about his goals, the importance of healthy eating, and staying active. That said, however, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve devoted my career to supporting people to improve their health – and I’ve been around a few (hundred) clients and have learned to spot some specific behaviors right away. Two key behaviors I picked up on with this one client – both fairly common – were underestimating junk food intake and overestimating general daily physical activity. (One could also make the case that denial was a third obvious habit, which had led him to self-identify as a non-exerciser.)

Due to many failed attempts at setting up a regular exercise routine in the past, he had reacted by labeling himself as the “anti-exerciser” instead of taking control and asking “What’s not working with this routine?” In my opinion, he didn’t take a mindful approach to exercise and better understanding his physical limits. And many people have a similar story and would benefit from a different perspective on exercise.

Instead of relying solely on willpower to get to the gym, I encourage building self-awareness to create a lasting habit of exercise. In general, most people who fail at making exercise a regular habit have tried to go from zero exercise to working out three-or-more times a week. Then the day comes when they feel overly tired, the snooze button wins, they work late, and/or one day an injury happens during an overzealous attempt at a P90X workout. Which leads to one day without exercise, and another, and another … and before you know it, the exercise habit is dead.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), which sets the gold standard for exercise and health risk stratification, an individual should do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per week; or 75 minutes a week of vigorous physical activity. By these standards, most people aim at frequency. But ACSM has also developed guidelines for the quality of exercise (strength, flexibility, and neuromuscular) and for reducing sedentary behavior.

There is more and more evidence that prolonged inactivity may shorten life span and increase the risk of chronic disease. In recent decades our ability to recognize our inactivity has declined, so much so that, as mentioned, we are likely to overestimate our level of physical activity and exercise. According to ACSM, “sedentary behavior – sitting for long periods of time – is distinct from physical activity and has been shown to be a health risk in itself. Meeting the guidelines for physical activity does not make up for a sedentary lifestyle.”

And random spikes of exercise aren’t a solution either. Get-fit-quick methods do not build sustainable change, and in my experience that when people lose weight too quickly they often gain it back, and then some. This is an even bigger issue than you might think. Short-term efforts, followed by long absences of exercise, do not measure up to the ACSM guidelines and consequently keep you at risk.

The other downside to attempting get-fit-quick plans is the likelihood of injury. The majority of Americans are beginning to exercise from a sedentary state. It is likely you may be missing some exercise skills. Even if you purchased the “latest and greatest equipment,” you likely know little about using it effectively. The same is true with working out to a popular exercise DVD prior to assessing your limitations or muscular imbalances (which you probably have), which can lead to injury. To avoid hurting yourself, it’s important to think about fitness as a skill that’s refined over time, starting with baseline knowledge and not jumping on the latest infomercial trend.

Lastly, there is the long-tem consequence of not building a personalized exercise path for yourself that you can stick with and improve upon over time. In addition to the increased risk of disease from inactivity that we face today, as we age our central nervous system, muscles and bone deterioration are accelerated due to inactivity. This can lead to falls that can be traumatic and potentially life threatening.

So how do you go about practicing self-awareness while creating a life-long exercise habit? Here’s a list of skills and strategies that I review with many of my clients:

  1. Start out with the right mindset – consistency over frequency!
  2. Assess how much you sit during the day, your general physical activity, and how much moderate to vigorous activity you are performing. Be honest. Create a baseline so you have a reference point. And if you do not know what counts as what, make a note to seek out that information.
  3. Assess what you know about each component of exercise: aerobic training, strength training, and flexibility training.
  4. Focus on one habit and set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. SMART goals will help you give exercise the best, most realistic role in your life. And your self-awareness is key to knowing what the right goals are for you.
  5. As I noted earlier, knowing your current strengths (where you are skilled) and weaknesses (skills you have yet to learn or build), which will help guide your focus. Asking yourself “what does it feel like?” while exercising will be critical to improving your concentration, defining your upper and lower limits, and preventing injury.
  6. Relationships affect our ability to stay consistent with our exercise routine and healthy communication is critical. If you have more self-awareness, you’ll tend to communicate more effectively, whether it’s with your family or friends, workout buddy, trainer, or coach about what you need to maintain and improve your exercise regiment over time.
  7. Make sure to practice positive self-talk. What kind of coach are you for yourself? How aware are you of how you talk to yourself before, during and after workouts? Like the client that came to me for training, you may have experienced the same negative voice in your head for a very long time and may not always notice that it’s there. Instead, seek support from coaches, mentors, spouses, siblings, etc.
  8. On a similar note, be aware of managing your emotions. How and when does stress, fear, or anger affect your workouts? What do you do when these emotions come up? Increasing your skills with managing your emotions begins with being aware of your feelings, being aware of how they can “trigger” automatic reactions in you, and being aware of the tools you’ve already collected to manage them.

At the end of the day, however, it all starts with practicing self-awareness and having a better understanding of where you’re at, where you want to go, and how you want to get there. This strong awareness foundation will then make developing life-long exercise habits that much easier. It’s not easy to do, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort.

hubbub Coach Aaron

Experience: 12-years Corporate Wellness Coaching Professional Certification: Health Fitness Specialist, ACSM; Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NSCA Education: BA Exercise Sports Science