Consider all that is happening in your body as you read this sentence. Your brain is focused on each letter, using memory to associate them with words and their meanings. At the same time, your nervous system is keeping you breathing, turning the air, supplied with oxygen from the plants around you, into energy. Your body knows exactly what to take from each inhale, and what to excrete from each exhale. Your digestive system is turning the food you ate, also supplied by the plants, into nutrients for billions of cells. This system also knows exactly what to take and what to excrete.
Your body and brain are constantly working together to keep you well, without you even thinking about it. This is amazing. This is real. This is presence. Let’s talk more about the transformative power of presence to break down the barriers to exercise.
The struggle with exercise is real
The struggle with getting enough exercise is real—only 24% of people get enough.1 Physical inactivity has been called a pandemic.2 The weight of guilt and dread that even the word ‘exercise’ puts on so many people is quietly causing unnecessary suffering and disease. This is not an exaggeration—I hear about it from patients and clients every day. Yet, movement scientists and neuroscientists are constantly discovering new reasons to be hopeful, with growing evidence of the incredible potential contained in our mind and body that is released when we exercise. How can something so positive, so amazingly helpful that allows us to fully enjoy life, be so filled with struggle?
The mindset that transforms struggle to joy
The transformation from struggle to joy with anything, whether it is trying to make healthy choices or endure a global pandemic, starts with how we think about it. Shifting our mindset allows us to see ways around challenges and come up with ways to find joy in even the simplest of actions.
For the past year, I have been writing my first book. Writing is a powerful learning tool. It slows down our brain just enough that it can think about something in a new way. It always surprises me how writing brings new perspectives on how to apply the blending of body and brain sciences to exercise.
Recently, I have been reading, pondering, and writing about presence. It is the first principle mindset of Exercising WELL because it lays the groundwork for all the other body/mind skills you need to get the most out of exercise for your body and for your mind. Presence is slightly different from mindfulness, which is defined as paying attention to what is happening inside and around you, right now, with curiosity and kindness.3 Presence is mindfulness with an inner trust that you have and are enough in this moment. When you are present, you have a deep respect for the great potential within you at any given moment.4
Using presence to overcome barriers to exercise
The struggles with exercise happen when a certain approach to exercise leaves you feeling like you don’t have enough of what you need to do it, like time, energy, motivation, know-how. It is even a greater struggle when exercise leaves you feeling like you are not enough: not thin enough, toned enough, fit enough, strong enough, tough enough, flexible enough, etc.
When you exercise with presence, the struggles fade and enjoyment emerges. Presence is the simple science-based way out of the struggle with exercise.
- Presence before exercise helps you set goals in a way that taps into your intrinsic motives, which is what motivation science shows is the lasting type of motivation. Without presence, you are most likely to default to relying heavily on external motivators, the temporary motivators like other people, rewards, the scale, or your activity monitor. 5
- Presence during exercise lets you fine tune what you are doing to get the most personalized, just-right exercise session that leaves you feeling better every time. This not only saves you time, it creates a positive habit loop that keeps your brain wanting you to keep exercise as part of your life. Without presence, you are more likely to waste time with exercises you don’t need, push beyond your body’s limits to burn more calories or keep up with others (or your past self). This is likely to create a negative habit loop in your brain for exercise, making excuses surface when you go to do it again. 6
- Presence after exercise allows you to use this golden time when your brain is flooded with substances like BDNF, to help your brain ‘learn’ that exercise is something you want to keep doing. Without presence, you are more likely to move quickly on with your day, just glad you got it over with, and missing these key moments when your brain is primed to learn that exercise is a tremendous resource for you to be well now. 7
Presence keeps it real
As Amy Cuddy puts it in her book Presence, “Presence is moments of being real”. There is so much conjured up in the media based on what is marketable, rather than what is real, when it comes to exercise. So much of what we have come to believe about how to exercise; how it should feel, what changes it can produce in your body and how to stay motivated, has strayed from what is real and true and science-based.
“Presence is internal harmony.” Amy Cuddy
This is why I write. By knowing the facts about what is happening in your body when you move, how it is designed to move well, and how your brain is designed to stay motivated to take care of you, exercise becomes a time to restore your ‘internal harmony’ even in times of struggle.
The beautiful thing about presence is you can start now. Practice being in awe of all that is enough, inside and around as you move your body. Let me know what you discover!
Enjoy Exercising and Be WELL,
P.S. If you are in the 24% of people who feel joy when you hear the word exercise, share this with those you know who are in the 76%, the ones who dread exercise, and invite them into your joy-filled mindset.
- Ding D, Lawson KD, Kolbe-Alexander TL, et al. The economic burden of physical inactivity: a global analysis of major non-communicable diseases. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):1311‐1324. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30383-X
- Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
- Cuddy, Amy. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
- Di Domenico SI, Ryan RM. The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:145. Published 2017 Mar 24. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00145
- Habits Smith KS, Graybiel AM. Habit formation. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2016;18(1):33‐43.
- Ratey, John J.,Hagerman, Eric. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Of Exercise And The Brain. New York : Little, Brown, 2008. Print.