Master the Mental Side of Fitness

jeff on near skyterra with guests

When I was in high school, I purchased my first gym membership. Along with my friends, I built up my routine until I was putting in a solid to four or five days a week, not including my school team practices. I weighed in at a sleek 140 pounds, and my main goal was to increase my size and strength for hockey, and—I have to admit—to improve my looks for the ladies.

Okay, okay, I was vain. But c’mon, aren’t we all? Just a little bit?

These motivations got me started, but they’re not the same motivations that sustain me now. Of course they aren’t. How could they be? I was a teenager; now I’m an adult. High school sports inevitably come to a close, and only a select few people get to compete in college. Of those, only a miniscule percentage of athletes—even those who play NCAA Division I—end up turning professional. We all have our own reasons to get started, but we have to understand that our reasons for working out change along with the trajectory and circumstances of our lives. This is often the biggest problem we face in sustaining a fitness routine: our initial reasons for starting out no longer apply, and we fail to find new ones to keep us going.

The Only Constant is Change

As we age, we change. We go through stages of life, and each one brings new and different reasons to work out and stay fit. Some of us want to avoid the need to take high blood pressure medication; others want to lose a few pounds before the big wedding day. Some people want to look good at the beach and some people want to run a 5k road race. All different reasons; all equally valid. Wherever and whenever we find ourselves, we have to find new reasons to stay fit.

jeff teaching battle ropes exercise

Jeff Ford teaching proper form for battle ropes

Starting a program and sustaining a program are two entirely different things. The latter is much more difficult and those just beginning will battle the mental side in order to be consistent with their fitness. Here are two questions my clients and friends ask me all the time:

How do you do it?

Do you ever take a break?

The answers are relatively straightforward. I’ll answer the second question first, because it’s easier: of course I take breaks. If I didn’t take breaks, I’d crack up. I’m not saying I turn into a different person and hide in the closet eating Twinkies, but sure—I take some easy weeks when I stay active but I’m not teaching, hitting my highly organized sessions, or training for an event. I still keep my body moving, though. If I didn’t I’d be miserable and I’d get cranky. If I never changed things up, I’d probably go crazy.

The answer to the first question really has to do with two things: 1) professional pride, and 2) my personal work ethic. As a fitness professional, I want to walk the walk. I want to be a role model for my clients. It’s that simple—if I didn’t, I’d feel like a hypocrite. On a personal level, I learned early on the value of hard work, consistency, and determination. I mentioned I was a hockey player; since I’ve never been too big, I had to work my backside off to earn my place on the ice. Talent can only take you so far in a sport like hockey. If I hadn’t worked at it, the big guys would’ve eaten me for lunch. I’ve taken those lessons from my teen years and applied them in adulthood. I work hard at what I do—and that’s how I do what I do. That logic of that sentence may sound circular, but I’m sure you get the drift.

Mastering Your Mental Game

I’ve been involved in so many situations and worked with so many different people that I understand what it takes to create and sustain a healthy, consistent fitness routine. One of the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that volume is not necessarily value. Working out two to three hours a day does not automatically make you healthy. I’ve also learned how to hang in there when the going gets tough. When motivation is hard to come by, it’s my mental strength that keeps me in the game. My personal reasons have evolved in ways I never could have predicted; each day brings new challenges, and each challenge leads to growth and new knowledge.

Based on my life-long experience in the wonderful world of fitness, here are my essential tips for mastering the mental, side of fitness:

Stay realistic with your routine.

Life is going to get in the way and you’re not always going to have the time and energy to get in your workouts. Take it one week at a time. Be okay with not being perfect. Given what’s on your plate each week, how many days are possible? Where can you sneak in your workout? You’ll have weeks where you get so booked up with appointments and other responsibilities (especially children if you have them) that your ideal week of fitness isn’t always going to be in the cards. Prioritize, but be realistic.

Understand the stage of your life.

When I was in college attending classes, working a part time job, and studying, I still had time to get to the gym for at least an hour every day. It was awesome. I planned everything out and had time to get it all done without killing myself. Unfortunately, the real world is quite different. Now I manage a business, teach private clients, and lead group fitness classes. I also have a soon-to-be fiancé and we have a new dog who’s very energetic, so time for my personal workouts has become scarce. Based on my experience and conversations with many people, I know it gets even tougher from here. There should be room in very stage of life for; the key is to remain flexible and make adjustments. You can make it all happen without using your life stage as an excuse. Lots of people before you have done it, people are doing it right now, and people will continue to do it in the future. And guess what? You’re one of them.

Slow down when you think you should speed up.

People who’ve been on an extended break from working out tend to step on the pedal way too fast when they get back in action. This almost always backfires. Please refrain from applying the classic line“…if I do it for twenty one days in a row it will become habit…” to a fitness restart. You’ll most start something unsustainable and burn yourself out both mentally and physically. A fitness routine is something that develops as you build strength and endurance. You also need to discover what you love now, which may not be the same as what you the last time you had a regular regimen. It helps to think from the inside out. Rather than concerning yourself with the aesthetics, like I did when I was trying to impress the girls back in my teen years, focus on the health benefits and how good you feel. It takes time to learn that it’s not how much you exercise, but how well and how consistently you do it.

Show up on the tough days.

It’s not going to be easy at first. The first three months of getting into a fitness routine can be rough. The more often you overcome the daily battles, the more likely you are to win the war. Every time you get out of bed and do the workout you promised yourself you’d do, it’s like money in the bank. You’ll feel great when you realize you can fight back the urge to hit snooze when everything in your brain is begging you for five more minutes. Team up with a friend, join a weekly fitness class, or go try something new and completely different. It won’t help to overwhelm yourself with too many commitments, but a select few will keep you motivated. Creating layers of accountability—to yourself, to your friends, to the class you paid for—is an absolute necessity to making your plan sustainable. Figure out how that looks for you and before you know it, those tough days will be easy.

Stay optimistic about your goals.

Maintain a positive attitude at all times. Believe in yourself. Don’t play the victim; don’t throw yourself a pity part; realize the little voice in your head that says “woe is me, I can’t do that” undermines your mental fitness and ends up sabotaging your physical fitness as well. Replace that script with one like this: “this might be tough but I’m going to do it.” Losing weight can be difficult goal; millions of people work hard every day to make it happen. The good news is that biggest battle is in your head. It’s not about finding the perfect fitness class or sticking to some amazing miracle diet; it’s about feeling strong and confident in your own skin. Also, don’t put yourself on an unrealistic schedule. Your goals are yours and the time it takes to reach them is unique to you. Comparing yourself to others or trying to stick to a timeframe you arbitrarily choose can take the wind out of your sails. Be patient with the process and trust that you have the ability to make it happen. Step back and look at the big picture. Use your strengths to your advantage. Take the time to find the fitness activities that boost your mood, improve your fitness, and help you achieve your goals.

At Skyterra Wellness, we’re experts at this part of the game. Come join us for a visit, and we’ll teach you to master the mental side of fitness!