Haters of exercise, fellow denizens of the couch and despisers of the treadmill, I have some good news for you: According to a new study, mind over matter can make exercising a little less excruciating. If you’ve ever had to break through the mental and physical barrier you hit when you’re at the top of your exercise game, you’re probably thinking "I know that," but the researchers who worked on this study found that a surprising method can help you start enjoying exercise and make it feel less terrible.
It’s natural to assume that you could make something like a run or a strenuous bike ride more tolerable by distracting yourself — say, by listening to a podcast or riding with a friend who can chat while you work out. But per the new study, which is due to be published in the August 2018 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion, using a technique called cognitive reappraisal to force yourself to focus almost clinically on the minutiae of what you’re doing is essential, The Cut reported.
The downside to this study is that it’s not exactly large, so its conclusions will need to be tested by a much larger experimental group before we can put real stock in them. According to the study report, researchers looked at 24 endurance runners, each of whom ran on treadmills for three 90-minute sessions. Runners were either given no instructions, were given instructions to try to distract themselves while they ran, or were given instructions to try cognitive reappraisal while they ran.
As Cari Romm writing for The Cut explained, cognitive reappraisal "involves emotionally detaching from a situation to experience it in a more neutral way" by "[engaging] fully in whatever the issue happens to be, just from another point of view."
In this study, researchers told participants to imagine they were studying running as a journalist or a scientist, "a mindset that required them to be fully present and focused on the uncomfortable sensations they were experiencing, but that also required them to dissociate a little bit as they did so," Romm reported. This method turned out to be the most effective, with participants who used it actually feeling like they were exerting less physical effort through the long run, according to the study report.
As Romm pointed out, cognitive appraisal has been studied before, and has shown positive results when it comes to managing things like anxiety. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that participants who said "I am excited" before performing anxiety-inducing tasks (like singing in front of a group) actually fared better emotionally than participants who said "I am anxious" before the same tasks, another Bustler reported.
While it may seem truly odd that you can help yourself relax or help yourself endure difficult situations by forcing yourself to give your anxiety or physical struggle room in your headspace, it works because you’re putting yourself in a different mindset, according to The Atlantic writer Olga Khazan, who put the 2014 study’s findings to the test.
In a video about her experiment, Khazan said, "What you’re really doing is getting yourself out of a threat mindset where you’re focused on all the things that could go wrong, and into an opportunity mindset, where you’re thinking about all the good things that will happen if you do well."
As Romm put it, "The key is to observe without emotionally reacting." Focusing on the task while maintaining the delicate balance of fully engaged and yet just a little clinically disconnected is the key. Doing that consistently will take practice, of course, but, well, everything to do with exercise takes practice.
And let’s be real, I’ll try pretty much anything that could make exercise less of a drag.