This post was originally published on Quartz, on August 5, 2016.
I’ve never been an athletic or active person. My entire history of sports involved one season of track in high school and a brief flirtation with what I thought was a yoga studio but turned out to be more of a cult. But then, in my mid-30s, I had two children and gained 30 pounds. I was suffering from chronic back pain, and I knew something needed to change.
There was just one problem: When it came down to it, I didn’t really want to exercise. When my husband suggested I take up running, I said I’d do it if—and only if—a bear was chasing me. And yet, last fall, I did both a half marathon and a triathlon for the first time. How did I evolve from a self-proclaimed couch potato to endurance athletics enthusiast? I learned how to change my attitude.
In my professional life, I work with schools to help struggling students re-engage with academics. One major focus is addressing students’ mindsets. According to the Chicago Consortium on School Reform (along with many other educational experts), three concepts influence whether students will persist when things get rough at school:
- The belief that hard work can and will lead to improvement
- Confidence that you, and people like you, belong in school and that it is a place where you can thrive
- The belief that what you are doing is valuable and relevant to your goals
When kids lack any one of these mindsets, they’re much less willing to continue working hard when things get difficult. After all, it is not rational to work hard when there’s no hope for improvement, for people who don’t seem to like you, to do things you don’t care about.
Looking back, my problem with exercise was that I lacked all three of these requirements. These main beliefs were holding me back:
- I hadn’t ever successfully sustained a workout routine, so clearly I just wasn’t an “exercise person.”
- I didn’t like gyms and didn’t feel like I belonged in them. Running on treadmills seemed pointless. And I couldn’t conceive of any need for so many mirrors in one place.
- I associated exercise with a lot of negative things. I hate the weight-loss industrial complex and the way it makes women feel ashamed of their perfectly good bodies. I also hate the elitism and exclusion that seems to permeate many sports. Basically, I didn’t value what exercise seemed to be offering.
It’s no wonder I wasn’t getting into a good routine: I didn’t believe that I would ever succeed, and I didn’t value that success anyway. In order to change, I used a series of techniques that are actually applicable to any number of areas—from becoming a better student to learning how to play a musical instrument. So no matter what aspect of your life you’re trying to improve, here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Learn to be kind to yourself
We live in a world obsessed with the exceptional. We admire prodigies and geniuses and multimillionaires, and we believe that some people are fundamentally capable of greatness while others are not. If you aren’t already exceptional (or very likely to become so), the theory goes, than it isn’t worth the effort to try. Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck calls this attitude a “fixed mindset.” By contrast, Dweck calls the belief that everyone’s intelligence and ability is developed over time a “growth mindset.” People with a “growth mindset” are much more likely to succeed in their goals.
The best way to rewire a fixed mindset is to get cozy with science. Research shows that when we work to master a new skill—whether it’s calculus or kickboxing—we grow synaptic connections and increase our brains’ ability to master other new things. Working out builds a foundation for greater athleticism. We grow new blood vessels that help us get oxygen more effectively and build muscles that are better able to withstand exertion. That’s part of the process of getting physically stronger.
We can help ourselves adopt a growth mindset—and it’s particularly important to do so when beginning something new. If you go out for a run and find that you can’t jog for longer than a minute (like me!), resist the instinct to say, “See, I knew I wasn’t meant to do this!” and head back inside to sprawl on the couch. Instead, use a growth-mindset response. Tell yourself, “I’m on day one of getting stronger and faster. Go me!” It’s important that you’re patient and kind to yourself. You’ll be making serious progress before you know it.
2. Find a community
People don’t do things if they feel uncomfortable or out of place. A feeling of awkwardness and alienation is why truants don’t come to school, why I never shop at Aeropostale and why many middle-aged people would rather die than attend a Justin Bieber concert.
One way that schools help disengaged students reconnect with their academic environment is by assigning each student a counselor. It’s that counselor’s job to know the student’s name and life story, pester them when they don’t come to school, and cheer them on as they make progress. This technique works because it really doesn’t take much to turn the tide and make a person feel like they belong. With just one friend to wave to in the hallways or one adult figure checking up on how things are at home, school can feel a lot less alienating.
The same was true for me with exercise. Everything changed when I found a group of like-minded cyclists to ride with once a week. With the “Joy Ride” group, I found an alternative athletic culture where I could finally fit in. My fellow cyclists just wanted to have fun and get some fresh air. There was no sense of competition, and the goal wasn’t to be skinny or super buff. Since I felt comfortable and looked forward to hanging out with the group, I had a much easier time getting out the door.
So if you’re looking for a way to commit to exercise, think about the kind of people you like to hang out with and the atmospheres where you thrive. If you like a calm, focused environment, you might succeed with yoga or ballet. If you’re often in the mood to hang out with a bunch of fun-loving feminists, check out roller derby. When you’ve found your tribe, it be a lot easier to stay engaged when the going gets rough.
3. Think about your future self
Daphna Oyserman, a psychologist and professor of education and communication at the University of Southern California, has a theoryabout the link between academic success and the way adolescents envision their future selves. Oyserman writes that if kids’ visions of their future selves (or “possible selves”) are untethered to their academic achievements, they typically don’t see much value in doing school work. So schools need to help students get personally invested in careers and accomplishments that are directly tied to the work they do in class.
There was a moment just after my second child was born when I began to envision how exercising could make a meaningful difference to my future self. I was too unstable and too weak to pick up my older child without sending my back into spasms. I began to dream of a life where I was strong. Where I could hike and row a boat. Where I could encourage my children to be active by modeling that behavior myself. And then I hit upon the idea of doing a triathlon. Could I become a triathlete?
The second step of the “possible self” intervention is to set a related but much shorter-term goal. For example, if you aren’t exercising at all, you could decide that in the next eight weeks you will complete a Couch to 5K training program. You must then immediately set a goal for the week ahead: “I’ll buy the app and run at least once this week.” When you are tying your day-to-day efforts into a loftier, aspirational dream, it’s easier to stay motivated.
I work with a lot of people who are trying to change their lives for the better in any number of ways. When people describe a situation where they want to meet new people or eat healthier or pursue a new career but they never, ever do it, my first thought is that they need a change in mindset. Remember, we can change the way we visualize and attack our goals—there’s a triathlete of some kind lurking in all of us.