Don’t wish for it. Work for it! (5 Life Lessons from the Gym)
Special thanks to Trio Fitness of Mumbai, Mr Ratanraj Reddy and the fantastic team of Fitness Instructors for the inspiration.
Special thanks to Trio Fitness of Mumbai, Mr Ratanraj Reddy and the fantastic team of Fitness Instructors for the inspiration.
Twenty years ago a young man brimming with hope and enthusiasm applied for a seat in a top Business School. The course and the college was much-sought after by thousands of young, talented students holding dreams of a successful Corporate career in their eyes. Infact, it would not be entirely incorrect to say, bagging a seat there was an assured ticket to success and Corporate glory. But the road to winning this envious seat was strewn with thorns and barbed wires. Imagine thirty thousand hopefuls vying for a clutch of just 100 seats ! The process involved a tough qualifying exam, two grueling rounds of team presentations of business ideas under the harsh scrutiny of professors who seemed like they have come to attend a family funeral and finally an interview with a senior faculty. The objective was clear: find a way to reject 97 out of every 100 applicants. The young man was determined, quietly focused and didn’t hesitate to take chances. He had managed to reach the last 300 shortlisted candidates, with just the final interview between him and the seat ! The equation had now boiled down to selection of one out of three applicants. That young man was me.
While this story was unfolding in my professional life, another story completely un-related and purely by chance, was evolving in my personal life. For nearly three years before that day, I had been attending Karate classes three evenings a week. It was just a fun hobby. Starting from the entrée level White Belt, I had gradually climbed my way up, earning the Yellow and Green Belts and hoped to eventually earn the Black Belt too, one day. That didn’t happen, unfortunately. But who could have imagined that this Karate training would come to my help at the right moment and secure that seat in the MBA college?
On that critical interview day, as I sat before the Professor of Corporate Law, he casually inquired about my life outside work. On hearing about my Karate classes, he couldn’t hide a smile and asked cynically “how will Karate help you with MBA studies and your professional career?” Closing my eyes for few seconds I introspected deeply and then replied, “When you are face to face with the risk of physical injury or even death, the danger of being hit by a hard kick all of a sudden, your mind is at peak concentration, your senses on high alert, willing to take risks, looking out for the split second opportunity and the belief that attack is the best form of defense. These qualities apply in Business too”. Though my words didn’t make much sense to me then, it surely impressed my Professor. I was selected and a month later found myself sitting in the MBA class alongside 90 other lucky students.
Mental change starts easily with physical change!
Here’s a question: Those of you who regularly hit the gym, how much importance do you give to ‘increasing the weights’ while working out? Or perhaps increasing the complexity and level of difficulty in a sport you play? Or the more difficult Yoga asana? Now let me, at the outset itself, confess that I am no fitness guru. But the connection between fitness and psychology has always been a subject of fascination for me.
Well, here are 5 psychological reasons why you should consider constantly ‘upping the ante’ – increase the weights in your gym routine or walk/ run longer and faster or cycle longer distances…
1. Increased Focus and meditative silence: Irrespective of what task we undertake, our mind evaluates the perceived risks and damages involved and prepares us against them. The higher the (perceived) risk, the higher our concentration and focus. Worth noting that, these are perceptions and could change as you start facing them.
Coming back to the gym, irrespective of whether or not you succeed, the prospect of lifting heavier weights, activates the mind’s survival strategy rallying every muscle, fiber and cell of the body as a unit, into the act. But what happens if you were to lift the same weights each day for weeks? You get bored, don’t you? It no longer feels exciting because your mind has got accustomed and it no longer poses a risk.
Most people hold the notion that to exceed your limits, you must learn how to focus. The reality is that pushing yourself beyond limits makes you focus with a still mind, and not the other way round. The challenge automatically makes the mind focus on the task, like nothing else. Each day, as you challenge your physical limits, you are also silently training your mind to stay still and focused. For most people this cool habit disappears gradually dampening their motivation as they grow older and prefer a routine life.
CAUTION: Please don’t try this out in risk-to-life activities like driving, swimming, etc.
2. Developing a habit of staying motivated and considering risks with a positive mindset: To be the best in any activity we do, always feels great, isn’t it? Being mediocre just doesn’t cut. Whilst pushing heavier weights does shape up your body, unknown to you, your mind is training to accept challenges (instead of avoiding them) and take them on.
How does that work? To trace the source of motivation, let’s begin in the brain where neurotransmitters spark chemical messages to keep us alert and on task. It is a well-known fact that exercising produces Endorphins the feel-good neurochemical that sedates the pain. One specific neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation is dopamine. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many different areas, including motivation, memory, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning, and oh yeah, pleasurable reward.
The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment and the brain does the rest. According to neurologist Judy Willis, setting incremental goals, like increasing weights at the gym or running that extra 500 meters is a cool way to trigger dopamine release and prepare your day feeling motivated and considering risks with the right attitude.
In essence, what you are doing is rewiring the brain to attach a dopamine response to the task you want as a reward. Allow yourself to experience frequent positive feedback as you progress through a series of goals.
3. Muscles decay when not used: Lets face it. You either keep building it or lose it !!!
Within a month of not working out, your veins and arteries stiffen, which could make your blood pressure rocket like a space shuttle off Cape Canaveral. Within two weeks of going on a gym sabbatical, the amount of oxygen your working muscles can use decreases by something like 20 percent. In addition to the possibility of having less grey matter than someone who works out routinely, your ability to grow brain cells may decrease as well.
Routines install fear of change. When you stop pushing yourself, your psychological ability to face unknowns begins to diminish. It is only when you keep pushing your limits that your fears stay at bay. So when you are afraid of taking decisions that you used to take comfortably before you got into that monotonous phase in your work, don’t be surprised. It is the routine that killed the curiosity. Research indicates that as people approach their forties, the desire to follow a routine, comfortable lifestyle becomes too tempting to resist causing their risk taking, creative thinking abilities to decline. This should, ofcourse be taken as a general observation and not a rule of sorts.
4. Full Body workout ensures every part is fit: Whether you follow a full body workout (i.e entire body in one go) or a split muscles routine (i.e focusing on specific muscles at a time), ensure that every muscle of the body is equally worked out as a holistic approach to being healthy and strong.
What lesson does this give us? OK, so this is not about increasing the weights but still an important aspect of psychological wellbeing. Every muscle and tissue of our body is interconnected with other systems to operate as a single unit. Have you experienced what happens when just one muscle of your body is out of action temporarily – say, due to an injury? It doesn’t just affect your movements but also plays on your mood, your confidence in performing certain tasks, concentration and energy levels.
At any given point in time, our mind juggles to achieve a delicate balance between several issues – finance, relations, career/ business, education, family, vacations/ leisure and many more. What would happen if you focused on just one – say, Career? The ecological fallout (i.e how one area of your life affects other areas) of disproportionate important to career would take a toll on the relations, perhaps health and more areas of our life. Unknown to our conscious selves, our unconscious mind – protector of our core interests, knows about this damage and will do whatever it can to sabotage our single-minded focus on the career. How will it do that? Well, it can achieve that in more than one ways – the most common being physical ailments like chronic backaches, diabetes, insomnia, blood pressure issues and more… It is that unconscious mind signaling us to balance life. Focusing on just one at the cost of all others is more damaging than beneficial – we know that.
5 Variations, variations and variations: Whether you are into gym or any other form of physical sport, experts’ advice regular variations in your exercises for a fitter lifestyle. Cardio at times, weights on other days mixed with Yoga and perhaps an occasional sport (tennis, badminton, swimming, etc.) on a rotation is a wonderful way for holistic health. Hey, did I mention, trying out those fun exercises waiting at the airport for the flight? Or in the office?
How do variations contribute to increased challenge? Our brain is one of the finest and cleverest efficiency optimization machine. As you head to the gym, mentally preparing for the exercises and the weights you would lift, your brain is already planning for the lowest risk and most efficient mechanism to handle that goal. These include, what muscles to load, rate of metabolism, motivational state, etc The reason for this is that whilst your brain has to comply with fulfillment of your exercising goals, it also has a background responsibility of conservation of energy and least damage to muscles and tissues.
It is like making one part of our mind (with the goals of conservation & protection of body) working against another (wanting to push the body beyond its limits). Who will win? BOTH. As a result, IF you maintain a fixed workout regimen, be sure that within a short time, your brain will devise internal control mechanisms that ensure minimal consumption of energy to achieve that goal. Changing your routine is an easy way to ‘surprise’ the brain and make it work more. Besides, it also ensures that the motivation and ‘feel good’ chemicals are produced in good quantities.
In Conclusion: “Exercise is something that psychologists have been very slow to attend to,” agrees Michael Otto, PhD, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. (However) there is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action.”
Researchers are still working out the details of that action: how much exercise is needed, what mechanisms are behind the boost that exercise brings and why — despite all the benefits of physical activity — it’s so hard to go for that morning jog. But as evidence piles up, the exercise-mental health connection is becoming impossible to ignore.
Starting out too hard in a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people disdain physical activity. When people exercise above their respiratory threshold — that is, above the point when it gets hard to talk — they postpone exercise’s immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes, Otto says. For novices, that delay could turn them off of the treadmill for good. Given that, he recommends that workout neophytes start slowly, with a moderate exercise plan and keep increasing the challenge level gradually.
“Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise,” he says. “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s the time you get the payoff.”
Amit Pathak is a NLP double Master Practitioner, Certified Hypnotherapist, professional therapist & success coach and international trainer who regularly conducts workshops on NLP and related therapy in India, UK and other countries. Having worked with world-renowned authorities in this field for well over a decade he thoroughly enjoys learning and evolving new techniques and concepts aimed at assisting people in improving their lives.