A woman smiling while doing lunges in the gym

The power of thinking positively about exercise

Posted by for Strength

We need to stop thinking of exercise as hard and horrible – this is why swapping negative thoughts is so important.

I love exercise – but sometimes I convince myself that I don’t. Not regularly, but often enough to notice it, I find my thoughts slipping into the pattern of ‘I’m so tired’, ‘It’s too hard’ or ‘I hate mountain climbers/assault bikes/whatever exercise I’m being told to do’.

Reducing exercise to something hard, gross or punishing is all too common. It’s the way that society has always (and still does) sell movement to us. There’s a belief that it must be insufferable to be worth it, and it’s built up as a painful, exhausting experience.

I know that negative thinking doesn’t set me up for the workouts that I know I’m capable of, but just the other week, I found myself falling into that negative spiral. I started the first week of January waiting for the result of a PCR test and therefore wasn’t hitting the gym; that’s when I noticed those thoughts creeping in. I ruminated on how much I hated home workouts, how annoying it was to have to wait even longer to get back to the training I loved after my Christmas break, and that my 9kg dumbbells weren’t giving me a ‘proper’ workout. 

Having started thinking about the power of mindset for this article, I flipped my thoughts. I told myself that home workouts were a great opportunity to work on my cardiovascular fitness by doing HIIT, rather than my usual weights. I noticed the extra energy I had after a restful Christmas and told myself to channel that into my training. I told myself that I definitely could do the full round of burpees I had planned – and I did. I actually enjoyed the bodyweight sweat and out-trained my expectations.

The impact of ‘yes I can’

It sounds obvious, but there is evidence that the attitude we have going into situations tends to pre-empt how we experience them. “Thoughts do have an impact on how we approach tasks,” says health psychologist Dr Sula Windgassen. “We all have those days that we wake up feeling knackered, but if we tell ourselves today’s an awful day then that informs how we go on to conduct ourselves. We call that emotional reasoning; the way we feel informs what we think about something. 

A woman lying on her yoga mat
Telling yourself that exercise is horrible means you're less likely to do it

“But often, emotional reasoning doesn’t give a realistic perspective of what’s going on. We shouldn’t always engage with our predictions. Instead, we need the self-awareness to know how we best serve ourselves in those moments. That is why, in therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy, we encourage people to shift the way in which we’re relating to a certain situation and they tend to have more positive outcomes.”

There are two problems with that when it comes to exercise. First, it builds a negative relationship with how we move our bodies – emphasising that it’s something to avoid, something punishing. Telling yourself it’s horrible and that you hate being out of breath or the feeling of tired muscles means those things will be in hyperfocus during your workout, Dr Windgassen explains. That ends up feeling as though you proved yourself right, and “the feeling and the thoughts tend to compound each other and we finish thinking that it was a really unpleasant experience. Then we are more ambivalent or reluctant to do the exercise again,” she says. 

But negative thoughts also impact your performance – the irony is that the more we think we’ll be bad at it, the worse we are. A 2009 study from the Psychology of Sport and Exercise journal found that positive ‘self-talk’ – including phrases such as ‘I can’ and references to strength – improved performance in a tennis-based sports test, as well as increased self-confidence and reduced cognitive anxiety. 

It’s not just about how you think before your workout, either. Self-talk has the power to make or break your session mid-training. For example, have you ever started running and got lost in the landscape, only to realise you’re 15 minutes in and not hating it? If you’d filled that time with grumbles of ‘This is so hard’ then perhaps you would have given up. We have to give our brains the space to let those positive thoughts enter, rather than fill our minds with how awful it is to train. 

A woman about to start running looking at her fitness tracker
Your negative thoughts might dispel once you've started exercising

How to be more positive about exercise

On the days we grumble about moving, we need to rewire our thoughts. This is how:

Be conscious about your attitudes

Back to that self-awareness Dr Windgassen was referring to earlier: “Listen to those negative thoughts and ask why you feel them,” says Dr Windgassen. “Are you really tired, or are you feeling lethargic but know that once you start you’ll actually enjoy it? Giving yourself that opportunity to change your relationship with the activity that you’re choosing to do as opposed to kind of blindly going into it with all of these unarticulated feelings of resistance will give you the best outcome,” she says. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with rest when that’s what our body is calling for. But we need to be realistic about what the body wants, and what our thoughts are telling us to do. 

Choose the right movement

For some extra encouragement, it’s OK to opt for exercise that is hard to grumble about. “If we’re picking something that’s really not going to serve us at that moment, our thoughts will be much worse. Don’t choose something that you know is going to prove the negative mindset, something that you know you never enjoy or does feel particularly gruelling. A good compromise is picking a form of movement you really love, like walking or dancing instead of a formal ‘session’.” 

Don’t see it as an alternative to other pleasures

“When people haven’t been exercising for a while, they think that in order to find the time to exercise they have to give up time for the things they deem pleasurable. For example, watching TV or socialising with friends. There’s an assumption that healthy habits mean you’re missing out on things you really enjoy,” says Dr Windgassen.

Flip that narrative. Firstly, exercise can take just 15 minutes – hardly something that will eat into TV time. It can also be done as a sociable activity if that’s what you’re worried about missing out on. Go to a class with friends or agree to meet them for dinner after your class.

Plan it

“It’s harder to see the positives when you’re imminently weighing up whether to do things or not, so set intentions in other moments,” she says. That means deciding to go to the gym the night before and getting everything ready beforehand, rather than thinking through the pros and cons of getting out of bed at 6am. 

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).