Video 3 – More carrots, fewer sticks – transcript
When we are encouraged to do more exercise or become more physically active to support our mental health, many of us will immediately think of having to join and go to a gym.
We may also have expectations of what people who regularly go to the gym look like.
Our imagination may trick us into believing that gyms are places where we need to be award-winning athletes, with perfectly toned bodies and six packs, to fit in with the gym community and to be accepted without judgement.
And if we don’t feel comfortable about how we look, or having the right clothing, we may see the gym as a place where our needs to feel safe, included, and free from judgement are unlikely to be met.
Feeling uncomfortable about going to the gym makes it unlikely that we will feel motivated about exercise and becoming more physically active.
We may then start to feel guilty about our lack of motivation and criticise ourselves for being lazy.
Punishing ourselves with self-criticism, having unrealistic expectations, and making unhelpful comparisons with others, all reduce motivation to get moving.
People who study motivation have found that we are more motivated by rewards than by punishments.
So, instead of punishing ourselves, we need to focus on rewards to boost motivation. Or to put it another way, we need more carrots and fewer sticks.
We can start to reduce the sticks by making our expectations about exercise more realistic and achievable. And importantly, by dispelling the myth that exercise means going to the gym.
Any movements we make which lift our heart rate and keep us mobile count as physical activity.
These can be simple movements like stretching our arms above our heads every half an hour. Or standing up if you’re able to.
Take time to notice changes in breathing and mood when you do.
If there are stairs where you live, you might count the number of times you go up and down the stairs each day and notice if you feel your mood lift afterwards.
Walking to or around the shops, and household activities which involve standing up and moving, all count too. So do things like cooking or vacuuming.
So that’s our first stick gone, that physical activity means going to the gym.
And we now have our first carrot too, which is that even simple movements count as physical activity.
And if you do like going to the gym, you can add that to your bunch of carrots as well.
Another stick we may need to overcome are the unpleasant expectations of how exercise might make us feel.
When we think about physical activity, we may begin to recall memories of feeling out of breath, sweaty, suffering with aches and pains the day after taking exercise, or even memories of injuries we may have picked up in the past.
These are some big sticks, but the best way to deal with them is to stack the scales with carrots.
When any unpleasant memories of exercise pop up, be ready to counter them with pleasurable memories of physical activity.
That might include the memory of a sunny day walking in the park or in the countryside.
It could be the memory of how alive we feel when our muscles are warmed up, our heart and lungs are working more easily, and we can breathe more easily.
We may choose to recall the experience of the release of pleasure chemicals, like endorphins, during exercise.
This can be particularly powerful during the winter months, when it gets colder and darker early on and the sofa looks more appealing than going out for a walk, a run or to an exercise class.
Counter the appeal of the sofa by recalling how much pleasure you’ve had from spending time with other people and meeting social needs, and feeling yourself getting fitter, stronger and healthier.
Another big carrot to remind ourselves of is the benefit of movement for both our mental health and physical wellbeing.
For instance, by increasing the amount of movement we do, we reduce stress hormones, but also the proteins which keep the inflammation response switched on.
Research shows that 20 minutes of exercise significantly reduces inflammation and the symptoms of depression.
But we don’t need to do 20 minutes straight away. We can start slowly and gently, noticing how movement improves our mood.
And every time we add to our memories of enjoying exercise we boost motivation for movement, by adding more carrots, not sticks.