Good detectives know that asking the questions who, what, where, when, and why can lead to solving a mystery. Knowing the right way to exercise can seem like a huge mystery can’t it? Everywhere you look, you see exercises and programs that claim to be the answer to the ‘problems’ of your body. How do you know what is worth the investment of your time and energy? In this three-blog series, we’ll use these five sleuth questions to know if an exercise is science-based, right for your body, and likely to lead to feeling better and staying motivated.
In part 1 we uncovered how to find exercise that is science based. In part two we explored finding exercise for the results you want. In this last part, we solve the mystery of knowing if an exercise is right for your body right now.
Who is telling you it is right for your body?
Since we are flooded with information about how exercise is good for us, we can often think of exercise like a child eating their vegetables so they can have dessert. The problem with that ‘just do it’ approach is your brain believes what your body feels much more than what you tell yourself. Exercising because you have to in order to get to a goal is an athletic mindset. For most people, exercising because you have to will only last for so long. Eventually, your motivation will fade because something more important you have to do will come along.
Instead, let you body tell your brain that it wants to keep coming back for more. How? By being present to how you feel when you think about exercising, are exercising, and have finished exercising. If your feelings are negative, it is time to change what you are doing or expecting of your body right now. When exercise is a positive experience in both your brain and body from the moment you think about it, you have found the way to exercise for well-being and health.
What are you doing for exercise?
In our calorie-focused society, exercise has become just a way to burn calories. But exercise literally means ‘to practice’. So ask yourself, what are you practicing and is that what you want. Exercise is not to burn calories, it is to help your body and brain feel better now and function better later. If you are doing exercises to burn calories, you may be moving in ways that don’t leave you feeling better now and that will drain motivation to keep doing it . If you are doing movements that are are practicing how you want to function better in daily life, at just the right level for your body right now, you will both feel better now and function better later. Look closely at the movements you are doing and ask yourself if those are moments you want to improve for daily life.
Where is my attention when I exercise?
Exercises are often named by the muscles they are working, like triceps, abs, and glutes. However, muscles do not work in isolation. Movements are a symphony of many muscles working together, orchestrated by your nervous system. The conductor is your central nervous system, brain, and spinal cord. When you focus on muscles, you are likely to miss the fact that other parts of your body are being strained, not strengthened. Consider how an exercise feels for your whole body to know if it is right for your body.
Often our attention is not on our body at all. If you use distraction, like watching TV or talking on the phone, to get through an exercise, your nervous system cannot help your muscles coordinate the movement well and the quality of your practice has just been lowered. You are not teaching your body to function better while teaching your brain not to focus. This is the number one way we waste time with exercise.
To exercise in the right way for your body, keep your attention on your whole body in the present moment. Only you know how your body feels and that is your best, most personalized guide. In doing this, you raise the quality of your exercise, thus making it more time-efficient.
When do I get the results?
In our athletic-minded exercise culture, feeling good when you exercise is not valued, it is considered ‘wimping out’. This mindset is helpful when you are competing, because the reward comes in the future. But when your reasons for exercise are to be well and healthy, the reward is in feeling better now. If you are a former athlete, but now are exercising for health and well-being, pay attention to this inclination to follow athletic approaches. Remind yourself that now your reasons for exercising are different, so the way you exercise needs to be different too.
You may have long term goals for exercising, but if they are related to being healthy and well, the way to get there is to be right here, right now. Your body is in a constant state of change. Every day it needs something slightly different from exercise. What felt good last week may not feel good this week. The path to your goal won’t be linear, because that is not how the body changes. The only way to know how to exercise right is to stay present. Listening to and trusting your body moment by moment is the way to make exercise work for you.
Why is this exercise right for me right now?
Connect your Why for exercise with what you are passionate about in life because this is the way to know how to exercise the right way for your body and your life right now and sustain motivation. The stronger you make the connection, the more you will be exercising the right way to get what you really want and the more motivated you will be to stick with it. Your core Why for exercise is not to lose weight or be healthy, it is the reasons why you want those things. Take the time to get to your core Why and finding the right exercise will be easier and more time-efficient.
Bottom line: When exercise is based on how the body moves well, designed specifically for the real results you want from it, and leaves you feeling better instantly, you are exercising right. This is the most time- and energy-efficient way to exercise and the most motivating too. When you know how to exercise right, body and your brain will be working together to keep you well and healthy. In the next blog series, we’ll look at how to exercise so you feel better mentally, emotionally and physically.
- Rick Hanson, PhD is an expert practicing being present in a way that leads to well-being.
- To understand the connection between exercise, motivation, and mindfulness, check out this blog series.
- Learn more about strength beyond muscles in this blog.
- Find your core Why for exercise with this checklist.