I wasn’t always an athlete. When I was in my teens and early twenties, physical fitness wasn’t a priority, and exercise wasn’t a part of my daily life. Sure, I played some sports in high school (poorly), but I was far from a regular gym-goer.
When I was younger, I struggled with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse issues.
I tried medication, counseling, journaling, exercise, sobriety, etc. – all the standard recommendations.
None of it worked long-term.
When I was around 21 years old, some of my bad habits had caught up with me physically. I knew I needed to exercise more and eat less crap food.
I wanted to start exercising to look better, feel less like a piece of a shit party girl, be more confident, and improve my general health.
Sure, I had small stretches of time that I hit up the treadmill at Bally’s Total Fitness in Philadelphia and used that useless abductor and adductor machines that are supposed to get your thighs “toned.”
Still, after a month or so, I’d fall out of the physical fitness habit and spiral into a negative shit-storm of beating myself up and wondering why I couldn’t stop consuming foot-long sub sandwiches from Wawa at 3 am after a night fueled by vodka cranberry drinks.
When I started training Muay Thai at 24 years, something clicked.
I began to view training not as a remedy for my lack of “fitness” but as medicine for my soul.
Working out became something that gave me purpose and passion, something to get up for in the morning… and something to sacrifice for.
I never thought I would become a fighter. The sport “found me”- and I found a purpose and goal.
This video below is of a training session for my pro-Muay Thai debut in 2009. It was my 20th or 21st fight. I watch old videos of fight training sometimes as a reminder of goal setting success.
The journey from training session to fight to victory is the overall goal a fighter keeps in mind, but in the gym, the focus is on skill-building.
I’ve known about the mental health and stress relief benefits of exercise for a long time. One of my majors in college was Psychology. Before I found Muay Thai, I also had a deep desire to get “fit,” but I never achieved it.
The desire to be “fit” or feel better wasn’t enough to get me to exercise regularly.
It wasn’t until I tapped into a greater purpose, a lofty goal, that physical fitness became part of my weekly routine.
You don’t have to be a fighter to apply this to your life.
A KEY PHYSICAL FITNESS MINDSET HACK
To master the habit of regular exercise, find something you love in an activity or role, a goal to strive for. It should be something that gives you purpose and gets you excited for your day.
Then, rather than the standard losing weight or “improving myself” approach to exercise, focus on your goal and how exercising or training physical skills will get you there.
The goal can be anything that benefits from exercise but doesn’t have to be a sport. It could be as high reaching as becoming an astronaut or something as simple as keeping up physically with your kids, etc. You can also think of the goal as your “WHY,” your reason for physical improvement.
Almost all athletes cross-train outside of their sport to make physical improvements in their sport, their primary goal.
I did strength training, running, biking, and swimming – not because I enjoyed them at the time, but because I wanted to become the best fighter I could be.
Spoiler alert! I grew to LOVE strength training, and for a while, strength training, particularly kettlebells, became the new goal to reach after I retired.
The primary purpose that drives you to exercise doesn’t have to be physical at all by nature. If your goal is graduating from law school, publishing a book, or running a successful online business, the re-focusing formula still works!
Even if you have a goal of losing weight or gaining muscle, or improving your health, you WILL, of course, get physical benefits from regular exercise. But if you focus solely on that, your brain gets burned out. Negative feelings can bubble up to the surface.
Instead of focusing on the outcome goal of looking better or feeling better, try focusing on developing fitness skills or habits that help you reach a genuinely passionate goal. It takes the pressure off and keeps your attention razor-sharp.
The only exception to this formula might be if you are incredibly passionate about being a competitive bodybuilder. Even then, I’d argue that most bodybuilders have a reason that drives them to work out beyond just improving their physique.
RE-FOCUSING YOUR FITNESS GOALS
The mental re-focusing trick works for all fitness goals. I’ve witnessed it in myself and my clients again and again.
Since retiring, it has been more of a struggle to re-focus my fitness goals. I don’t have lofty athletic goals anymore. I can’t make that connection to fuel my workouts.
Even after hanging up the gloves and embracing lifting more, I now have reached all of my strength training goals for skills and personal records. I’ll never reach PR’s as high as I have done in the past. I’m past my prime as an athlete. I need a new aim to drive me.
Looking back at my Muay Thai training and my journey as a fighter helps remind me how the re-focusing formula works.
SIGNIFICANT NON-FITNESS GOAL —> BENEFIT OF EXERCISE TO GOAL —> PHYSICAL FITNESS HABIT
These days, to stay active, I remind myself that exercise helps me run a successful online coaching business in several ways.
- Exercise improves my mood so I can be energized, creative, and focused.
- When I complete a workout, it increases my self-confidence, making me feel strong and capable, so I can be the brave leader I want to be.
- It serves as a way for me to unwind, relax, clear my brain so I can be my most productive and clear-headed self.
- Regular exercise increases my self-image. I’m practicing what I preach so I can be a true role model to my clients.
I have a different relationship to exercise now than I did as a competitive fighter. My goals have changed – but the formula isn’t broken. I just have to readjust the coordinates to fit this older version of myself.
A QUICK EXERCISE TO SHIFT YOUR FITNESS MINDSET
Here’s what you can do today to re-focus your fitness goals and develop the habit of regular exercise:
- Write down what goals you are truly passionate about in your life. Pick one that is the most exciting for you to think about.
- Visualize what being successful in the activity or role looks like to you. Write down some specifics, like how reaching that goal improves your daily life, mindset, relationships, etc.
- Write down all the ways a regular exercise will benefit your primary goal.
If you even more questions to help you dive deep into your goal and fitness mindset, check out my article 15 Motivating New Year Goals Planning Questions.
I find it helpful to set reminders like a post-it note on your computer with the benefits or some reminder of your goal. I also set digital reminders to myself on my calendar or in Slack that keep my primary goal-focused.
It’s easy to slip out of the habit of exercising. Please don’t beat yourself up about it. Take a deep breath, set aside 5-10 minutes to re-frame your mindset to re-start your fitness routine today.
Want some help discovering what you are truly passionate about?
Check out Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher. You’ll learn how to discover your strengths and skills.
Want to learn more about the power of goal visualization?
Check out Psychol-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. Psycho-Cybernetics means “steering your mind to a productive, useful goal so you can reach the greatest port in the world, peace of mind.”
Want to learn how a growth mindset can help you be more successful and happy?
Read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck and learn how the right mindset can transform your life and others.