Winning the Exercise Head Game

September 23, 2011 in Fitness, General by Mary Ireland

Anyone who doesn’t believe that there is a strong connection between physical output and a person's belief system has only to look at the history of Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile. Until Bannister ran a mile in three minutes 59.4 seconds in 1954, most people -- including exercise physiologists -- thought that the human body was incapable of running a mile in less than four minutes. After Bannister broke the barrier, sub-four-minute miles became more and more frequent. Bannister has been quoted as saying“It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ. It’s the brain.”

Dr. Kevin Thompson, head of sport and exercise science at Northumbrian University in England, recently conducted an experiment with cycliststhat proves Bannister’s statement. In Thompson’s experiment trained cyclists rode as hard as they could for 2.5 miles. The cyclist did this several times to establish their limits. Then each cyclist raced against what he was told was his best time – shown as a cyclist riding on a computer screen in front of him. The researchers, however, had increased the speed of the cyclist on the screen by 1%. The cyclists ended up matching the virtual rider; thereby, going significantly faster than they ever had gone before - a 1% increase in speed is accomplished by a 2% increase in power.

In a similar experiment at the University of Portsmouth in England, Jo Corbett, a senior lecturer in applied exercise physiology had cyclists ride as hard and as fast as they could on a stationary bicycle for the equivalent of 1.25 miles. These riders were told they would be riding against a competitor shown on a computer screen. The “competitor” shown on the screen was actually their own best time. Similar to Thompson’s experiments, the cyclist beat their own best times.

These studies were conducted on trained athletes who are very familiar with the limitations of their bodies. These athletes were highly motivated to perform their very best. What about the rest of us? How do our brains limit us? For those who don't exercise at all, the reason or reasons are probably conscious and include one or more from the following list:

  • I'm too old
  • I'm too fat
  • I have diabetes
  • I have heart disease
  • My balance isn't all that great
  • I have arthritis
  • I'm too out of shape

The good news is that exercise is a remedy for all the items on the list. If these are the reasons you don't exercise; reconsider your objections and be sure to see a doctor before you start an exercise program. The exercise program you begin should be tailored to your current physical capabilities; but know that you can improve. The important thing is to get your negative thinking out of your way - the above list doesn't contain one good reason not to exercise.

For those whose problem with exercise is more attitude - you just don't like to exercise - try to apply the following:

  • Recognize your own progress; aim for improvement and mastery
  • Don't compare yourself to anyone else
  • Set reachable goals
  • Acknowledge your self worth
  • Praise yourself for what you do
  • Do what works for you: at home, at a gym, with a partner, with a group, or solo. If you need variety mix it up.
  • Make your self-evaluations private and meaningful
  • Do not rush through a workout; focus on improvement

If you are currently working out, know that you can probably do better. Take a fresh look at your goals and your exercise program. If you are like the cyclist in the studies, you may not be able to improve your time unless you are tricked. But really, how many of us fall into that category?

Dr. Thompson summed it up when he said, “It comes back to the belief system within the athlete.” Take a look at your belief systems. Give some serious thought about how you are holding yourself back and then make some changes.