Guest article from a psychologist: Why exercising is a struggle despite positive effects

Psychologist Rebecka Merz describes the positive effects of exercise on body and mind. She also sheds light on why people struggle with motivation problems, even though the positive physical effects are undisputed and well-known.

We all dream of a perfectly balanced life. At the same time, expectations and demands on professional careers, family life and leisure activities are extremely high and therefore finding balance is challenging. This is evidenced not least by statistics on stress, anxiety, sleep disorders and depression, all of which point to increasing cases of mental illness.

Studies showing that physical activity has a positive influence on mental and physical health are numerous and their results are undisputed. Accordingly, the World Health Organization advises 30 minutes of active exercise daily (for example, brisk walking) or two and a half hours of exercise exposure per week.

The effects of regular active exercise

The health benefits mentioned above are numerous. I would like to briefly explain a few of them here:

Lowered risk of premature mortality and positive effects on the cardiovascular system.
More about this in the following article.

Positive effects on hormone balance
Numerous positive effects are generated via hormonal balance. For example, physical activity causes blood circulation to improve, which in turn helps in the removal of harmful substances and hormones. This is the case, for example, with the stress hormone cortisol, which at too high a concentration can be linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia and immune system dysfunction.

Exercise also releases hormones that give us energy and a feeling of satisfaction. However, the influence on the hormonal system does not occur exclusively in the immediate aftermath of exercise. It can also have a long-term effect and thus play an important role in the prevention and treatment of mental illnesses. Regular exercise also helps in the treatment of depression, improves sleep quality and concentration. Discover the main benefits of exercise for our mental health in this article.

What then prevents people from exercising despite positive effects?

The human brain is fantastic in many ways and its ability to adapt to new circumstances is outstanding. At the same time, in certain areas it is simply not adapted to the behavioral patterns of today’s society.

Information processing and decision making is, in extremely simplified terms, controlled by two different systems in the brain: a slow and “thinking” system and a fast, automatic and “willful” system.

In the slow system, information is directed to the frontal area of the brain where it is processed. Together with past experience, a well thought out decision is then made.

The second system is fast and goes through the emotional center of the brain. A quick, involuntary decision is made based on the feeling that arises. The two systems cannot work under high pressure at the same time and the fast one enjoys a right of first refusal because it is better suited as an alarm system.

Example hand on the hot stove top: The slow thought-out system would simply take too long here to issue the command to pull the hand away.

However, this programming of the brain has the side effect that in some cases we are influenced more strongly by our impulses and feelings than is necessary. For example, when bad weather suggests an emotional aversion to physical activity, even though we rationally have the certainty that the exercise would have a positive effect in the long run.

In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, humans have long been able to derive a benefit from vigorous behavior in order to benefit from sufficient reserves of strength in an emergency or when foraging for food.

Or, to put it simply, even if it is completely rational that exercise brings many benefits from today’s perspective, there is always a risk that our emotion-based thinking or evolutionary convenience will awaken an uneasy feeling associated with exercise. How great this influence of the feeling-based system is seems to be extremely individual.

Two tips for maintaining exercise motivation:

  • Break down your long-term goals into small intermediate goals that you can easily achieve.

If your goal is to get back to your previous form after an injury, the workouts at the beginning can trigger bad feelings. This is especially true for intense runs, because your form is of course not yet at the same level. So a first small subgoal could be to do an intense workout once a week, but don’t follow any pace targets.

  • Show understanding towards yourself if you are not on the best way to your long term goal.

In this case, simply ask yourself: What is making it so difficult to reach your desired pace at the moment? Have you had a lot of stress or physical problems? Do you find it more difficult than others to overcome the negative feelings mentioned above and to perform your workouts? Be honest and try to work out the cause. This will help you to gain more understanding towards yourself. Afterwards, it will also be easier for you to reward yourself for successful subgoals and to be proud of yourself. Such moments of success are of great importance on the way to your ultimate goals.

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