The Power of the Mind and Its Uses in Improving FItness
Have you ever decided to make exercise a regular part of your life, only to have that resolution abandoned within days? The following article by Mike Catton explains the different challenges people face when introducing exercise into their lives and how to overcome them.
How often have you, or people you know, committed to getting fitter, perhaps even started an exercise program but then with plenty of good reasons seemed to quit? Have you noticed that when you or others fail to follow through on their decisions it can eat away at their self-esteem and leave them feeling out of control of their lives? It’s time to put an end to this cycle of despair. In this article I’ll be applying the Neurological Levels proposed by Robert Dilts to the challenge of improving fitness (the model will become clear as you progress through the article). By fitness I mean any of its components such as strength, endurance, flexibility, speed or power etc. Perhaps the most important measure of fitness is the way we “feel” about ourselves.
Level 1: Environment
An aversion to exercise, like many issues, can present itself on many levels to different people so no one piece of advice suits all. For example, the challenge might be more superficial, on level 1, such as an “environment challenge”, in this case, you choose not to exercise because you don’t have a gym close by. The challenge is summed up by “I can’t do that here”. You convince yourself that if you lived nearer a gym it would be easier. There could be any number of “environmental” excuses such as “I don’t have the right clothing” or “I don’t have the right equipment”.
Level 2: Behaviour
We’ll now assume that you fixed all the “environmental excuses”. That’s great, for some people and they’ll now exercise. But some, once in the gym and shown the weights room and given a program, have a “behavioural challenge” at level 2. They simply don’t want to exercise in that way! It’s summed up by “I can’t do that”. Another form of exercise would be fine such as yoga, swimming, martial arts etc. Some experiment long enough to find something they like, such as a fitness class. Many who buy a gym membership fail to find something quickly enough and thus end up paying for gym membership and not using it.
Level 3: Capability
They now have a “capability challenge” at level 3. They think that they can’t do exercise. It’s all too difficult. It’s summed up by “I can’t do”. The solution is not as straight forward as in the two cases prior which is why many don’t solve it. A standard personal trainer can solve levels 1 and 2 with ease (one would hope, if they just had the sense to listen to their clients’ needs). The better trainers will also solve challenges at level 3 too. It requires an in-depth knowledge of strategies to encourage beginners to exercise. The fundamental challenge is that the trainer is an “exerciser” and may not understand how the client can be a “non-exerciser” and therefore does not communicate in a way that facilitates their journey to becoming an exerciser. It requires gentle progression, tailoring to personal needs and tastes, motivation, support and encouragement etc. It’s far more than showing them a perfect strength routine and leaving them to it, expecting that they will love it as much as the trainer does!
To make a change at any level is a relatively simple task, but at levels 3 and upwards the guidance of an expert in helping others harness the power of their minds would certainly make it easier as the conflict is internal, between your conscious will and your unconscious mind. To overcome a capability challenge a professional would typically install strategies that have proven successful for others to overcome the same challenge. The “Swish” technique can be useful here. For those people that just need a strategy, that’s all well and good and they’ll quickly begin to exercise, but for some their challenge is at the next level.
Level 4: Beliefs
At level 4, it’s a “belief challenge”. Even with a strategy that works they believe that they themselves can’t do it, which is summed up by “I can’t” and followed by the unfinished part of the sentence “so why bother even trying”. We’ve all seen these people, they limit their lives by failing to challenge their beliefs whether it be about dating, playing a musical instrument, getting fit and healthy etc. It’s a shame because it’s so easily remedied. You see, a belief is just a story in your head that gets a particular result. The person next to you runs a different story and gets a different result. You all know that whether I believe that I can or can’t catch a ball when thrown to me affects my ability to catch the ball. Why is it that some people say to themselves “I bet I drop this and look like an idiot” and others say “this is so easy”. If you want to be able to catch the ball it would help if you thought like a person who catches a ball with ease. This is what motivational speakers have referred to as “fake it until you make it”. It sounds so simple that people often overlook it, but it works because that’s how the brain is wired to work.
We all started at the same point when we went to catch the very first ball and it didn’t matter if we caught it or not, what mattered is what we thought that meant! You see, a person could drop it and say “I need to watch the ball more closely” or “I was close” but another would say “I’m no good at this”. The result you have today is due to the way you coached yourself in your early attempts (the coaching of those around you is important too which is why it’s important for parents to have an understanding of coaching). The good news is that we can reprogram all that negative coaching. Professionals use a “Time Line” technique to aid the shifting of beliefs so that the language you use internally shifts to a more productive type automatically and thus your actual performance will shift too! Now a “Time Line” intervention will have the desired effect for many, except for those whose challenge is at a higher level.
Level 5: Identity
At level 5 it’s an “identity challenge”. It’s summed up by “I”. Having everything in place, knowing a strategy, even believing that it will get the result is not enough. These are the people that saw the “ab king pro” or similar advert, believed the hype, paid good money and bought another piece of home gym equipment and then never even used it. They want the result but at their core “they’re just not an exerciser”. As with a challenge at any level there are things you can do by yourself to overcome it.
Here’s where my personal story fits in. I didn’t know that my personal aversion to exercise was at this level. I desperately wanted a result, I bought equipment, I even trained as a personal trainer and studied nutrition coming top on my course, and yet I was still unfit and overweight! I wanted a result, I knew how to get the result and yet I still wasn’t taking action. Essentially what was happening is that I would get a bit fitter and then stop exercising and so my weight and fitness would yo-yo up and down. It wasn’t until I committed to running a personal training business called “Get Me Fit” that I finally shifted. I had to lead by example because I’d have to run round with the clients, doing exercise with them. My identity shifted and I got a great result! It took me 6 years for my identity shift to happen and then the physical result appeared very quickly.
Knowing what I know now, I could have identified the level of my challenge and fixed it very quickly. An expert would use a “Parts Integration” technique to resolve this type of identity issue. The yo-yo effect is the tell tale sign and it’s known as “sequential incongruity” and occurs as your “conscious will to exercise” and your “unconscious habits of not exercising” battle it out for supremacy. In a gross simplification a “Parts Integration” essentially resolves the battle by having your conscious will to exercise become the unconscious habit. Sounds simple but it’s probably best to enlist the support of an expert in harnessing the power of the mind to help you with this. Either that or wait for 6 years like me and finally strike it lucky and unknowingly fix it by chance or determination.
It’s worth noting here that many areas of our life yo-yo, from relationships to finances and all of them can be resolved to some degree with techniques such as the ones I’ve mentioned. Why? Because the yo-yoing is created in your mind, you want a relationship, but you want freedom too and the yo-yo begins. Techniques like these are not magic, they just uses the programming language of the brain to smooth out some bumps, such as the programming glitch in this case that you can’t have freedom and a relationship at the same time!
Beyond Level 5
Now that all sounds well and good, but for some the challenge lies at a higher level again. How many levels can there be, I hear you ask? Well, just 6 according to Robert Dilts and his Neurological Levels model. As far as I am aware it has not been applied directly to exercise and fitness so I hope you are appreciating the effort I’ve gone to (I’ve also applied it to relationships and investing strategies just for fun with interesting results). You may have noticed that each level has required more time to explain and has got a little more complicated with the introduction of jargon words. Those words save me writing 15 pages to explain a complex process and are there so that you can visit any mind change professional and they’d know which tool I am suggesting they use to help you at each respective level. As for level 6 I’m not going to elaborate further here as I think it unlikely that it would be required in the context of this article on fitness (but if it were required an expert in harnessing the power of the mind would know what to do).
As you can see, working at solving the challenge at a lower neurological level than it is, is a waste of time, effort and money. The failure it brings takes people further away from their goal and cements challenges at higher levels as their self-esteem and self-belief are challenged. Also you can see, once a challenge is solved at one level, it can’t even exist at a lower level.
For example, I have clients who are committed to being fit and healthy at the “identity” level. No matter what the obstacle they’ll get over it, because at their core, their identity is “I’m an exerciser”. It’s as hard for them not to exercise as it is for a smoker to quit, so even coming to a training session, having forgotten their running shoes doesn’t stop them! The weather doesn’t stop them. Injury doesn’t stop them, they’re smart and just train other body parts.
Perhaps some of you are thinking, “that’s all well and good but my brain doesn’t work like that”. Well, perhaps not with exercise, yet, but it probably does it with something else, such as cigarettes, alcohol, compulsive cleaning, studying, working etc. You see, anything that you do well, easily, without effort is done this way. It’s not a chore or a pain, you genuinely want to do it, in fact you can’t stop yourself at times. How about applying this obvious ability of your brain to do the things you actually decide to do such as exercising. If you can do one you can do the other! Your professional in harnessing the power of the mind can help you apply the skill in one area of your life to another.
This raises the question, “does this work in reverse, can we use these tools to uninstall an addiction such as smoking?” The answer is yes, and the crucial point is the level of intervention. Someone with an addiction (a habit that they feel that they cannot control) usually has it at level 5, that of identity. They might say “I’m a smoker” which is subtly different from saying “I smoke”. One describes a behaviour and the other an identity. An expert would pick up on, and use themselves, much more subtle language than this to help bring about many changes.
Coming back to the addiction, smoking in this case. If you’re at level 5, i.e. your identity is that of being a smoker, when a “helper” suggests a level 3 solution i.e. capability level, so for arguments sake, tying your hands together, it just doesn’t have the impact they’d like. You’d find a way to smoke even with tied hands and they’d accuse you of not being committed! In essence, if the challenge is at level 5, use a level 5 intervention. Once it’s solved at a level it disappears from all levels below. This is the important part: If you switch your identity to that of being a non-smoker you won’t even miss cigarettes and will be able to sit with smokers, go to places you used to smoke and yet have no desire to smoke and probably have an aversion to smoking. On the other hand you’ll probably know some non-smokers that still have the smoking “identity” and long for a cigarette and get by on will-power and avoiding the places where they used to smoke. The only difference is that they solved the challenge in a “band-aid” kind of way at a lower level. The problem with this is that they are so distracted by “not smoking” that they don’t notice that they are making up for it by “over-eating” or some other new habit that has replaced smoking.
You’re probably wondering “How does this apply to exercise?” You’d be right to ask. You see, if you’re not currently exercising, you’re doing something else with that time. Sounds obvious, but in truth, the activity that you’re doing instead of exercise, such as watching your favourite TV program, is actually having a greater draw on you, regardless of your decision to exercise. So it might be appropriate to eliminate a few activities which you have no desire to do, but find yourself doing anyway, to make time available for exercise.
We’re almost done. There are just a few points to consider before you rush off and make some changes in your life. Most tools and processes mentioned in this article were developed by modelling what was working for one person (no matter how absurd it may sound) and then teaching another how to do it so that they could get the same result. There was little scientific proof and people acted on trust and belief. The technological advances in the last decade have allowed scientists to get a much greater understanding of how the brain works and the evidence is now fully behind these models and growing stronger by the month. Please note that the Neurological Levels Model is just that. It’s a model to help us understand some very complex workings of the mind. Even models that we think to be useful can later be proven to be less comprehensive, it’s not too long ago since people thought that the world was flat or that the sun went around the earth. This model was developed in the 1980’s and there are valid arguments against it, as there are with many models in almost any field of human endeavour. With that in mind, accept that a model is likely to be less useful, but that it still can be of use in understanding something until a better model comes along. In our case, it’s merely a model to help us identify the most appropriate tool to use given the presenting case of a client.
The Power of the Mind
The way your brain functions is very powerful. It’s easy to make rapid changes without fully thinking them through to see all the possible consequences. For example people often come to me wanting boundless energy; sounds fine, but they probably haven’t suffered insomnia yet! So in making changes, be careful what you ask for.
You can attain fitness, and very quickly. I have demonstrated that the challenges are more than physical. Most importantly I have shown you that you can overcome them. All you need do is identify the level at which your challenge exists and then focus your efforts there or at higher levels. It’s time for you to enjoy exercise! I have restricted this article to the use of the Neurological Levels but there many other concepts that are of immense value in this field.
References: Robert Dilts. Neurological Levels Model.