How to Keep Your Exercise Routine Focused in the Present, not the Future

Published March 14, 2017 in Warp & Woof

How to Keep Your Exercise Routine Focused in the Present, not the Future

William Sundwick

Everybody agrees that exercise is an important factor in health, especially as we age. But, who hasn’t had difficulty keeping to their ideal exercise routine? It’s just too much work, it’s boring, I’m too busy, it’s too cold or too hot, or rainy outside.
Part of the problem in keeping to a schedule may be goals that are over-ambitious. While true that setting goals can lead to achievement, hence releasing dopamine, making you feel good about yourself, setting goals that are too high leads to failure! Failure is not something that releases dopamine, or any other “feel good” neurotransmitter. There’s reason to believe that working out, like dieting, for the purpose of weight loss may not be the best strategy, unless your weight loss goal is very oblique (maybe primarily for weight CONTROL!). My physician has given me oblique instructions like “drop 5 pounds before I see you next time”, and it’s worked, but that is a pretty modest goal. Likewise, the well-known trap of  “I work out so I’ll look good naked” is probably a set-up for failure, if body image is a major detriment to your feeling good about yourself.
My proposal, based mostly on personal experience with exercise over the last 8-9 years (i.e., only since I turned 60, really) is simple: focus on the present, not the future! Much research supports the basic premise that exercise, even moderate exercise, makes you feel good. Being sedentary is something which clearly does NOT release any of the four “feel good” chemicals in your brain: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. We’re not talking about the famous “runner’s high” here, that may only happen after an hour or more of very vigorous aerobic, or cardio, exercise, like running. But, even as little as 10 minutes of some motion-oriented activity, like dancing or gardening, can produce measurable increases in the release of some of the neurotransmitters associated with BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor).  It’s this category of protein, like anandamide, that allows us to reduce stress, and deal with anxiety and depression, at least temporarily. Studies have demonstrated that groups of depressed patients, when exposed to regular exercise alone, fared better than control groups administered drugs, or combined drugs and exercise. Endorphin release, that “runner’s high”, doesn’t ever make it to the brain, but stays in the blood stream. It’s those other neurotransmitters that affect your mood.
While any physical activity has positive benefits for mood, a somewhat more vigorous exercise program is even better. Something on the order of 30 minutes, at least, three to five days per week, is often recommended. This level of exertion does require a modicum of preparation and routinizing, for most of us. I’ve decided that the most important features of any successful exercise program are the following:
  1. do things that feel good, not painful (you shouldn’t be “testing” yourself)
  2. associate your workout with another pleasurable experience (I listen to my iTunes playlists only when I’m at the gym, and I love that music)
  3. set goals only slightly hard to meet (mine are simply the number of days per week I go to the gym … my workout, once there, is always the same)
  4. measure your success after the fact … not while you’re working out (I weigh myself once a week, and manually add calories burned at gym to my Fitbit app, along with calories consumed wth food — sleep, and total steps from all sources, are automatically recorded — gym workouts are only one part of a holistic picture)
  5. vary your routine, not because you’re bored, or aren’t getting the results you want, but just because you want variety in your life (my gym workout is always the same, except I added back-strengthening about a year ago, but I also walk around the neighborhood, do stretching and limberness exercises at home, and have a pair of 8-lb. arm weights and a 5-lb. medicine ball at home, all run on their own separate schedules).
I consider myself a successful, and happy, senior exerciser. I’ve managed to keep it up for at least eight years, and have dropped about 35 lbs. off my weight over that time, most of it the first year, but with a downward curve continuing, though shallower, ever since. I’m actually proud of myself when I look in the mirror these days. My wife concurs. I never had any specific weight loss goals, and never felt a pressing need to look better, except just to generally “improve” my self image. Retirement helped, rather than hindered, the process, too — more time to play!
All of the above suggestions are focused on your exercise routine feeling good while you’re practicing it, and immediately afterwards. My experience has been that focusing on the present is almost always the preferred state of mind. Although I don’t meditate, I can understand its appeal! If you allow yourself to focus too much on the future, anxiety is the likely result. If you focus too much on the past, sadness for lost opportunities! The Present remains the best bet for happiness.

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