The Psychology of Exercise

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In our recent series of articles about exercise and its relationship with weight loss including The Myth of Exercise, we have tried to explore the practical utility of different exercise methods. In this article we are going to begin to examine the intricate interplay between exercise and psychology.

When the book Think Yourself Happy was being written by Dr Rick Norris I was fortunate enough to be asked to have a read through and make any suggestions that I saw fit. I was already familiar with everything else the good doctor had written and was genuinely pleased with his new material except for one thing: he still omitted exercise as one of his recommended activities for good mood. He did include engaging in pleasure giving acts, completing mini projects and investing in relationships as well as altruism or kindness to others but no sign of physical activity per se. Now this may come as a surprise to anyone with even a basic understanding of psychology but it would surprise you even more if you knew Rick for he is an avid exerciser. The man is a fitness machine, getting up at stupid o’clock several mornings a week to go swimming before work and frequently heading straight back to the gym after he has put a shift in. But he didn’t deem it suitable for his new book. Even more surprising is the fact that Rick had once conducted a research programme that examined the beneficial effects of exercise on stress and he, like others in the field, had proven its worth. So at our follow up meeting I pointed this out to him. But he earnestly shook his head. When pressed as to why he was very clear – our clients frequently fail when prescribed exercise.

Of course he was spot on. He wasn’t omitting exercise from his book because it didn’t work but because it can often be something else that a person can feel bad about if they give up. Adding a potential for failure was not something this book about stress, anxiety and depression was about. Dr Rick wanted to set people up for success whereas exercise regimes often trip us up. The thorny issue of motivation is right up there, front and centre when exercising finds its way onto the agenda.

Now you haven’t joined Waetugo to solve any mental health issues but rather to get to a healthy weight and improving your fitness and exercise might be something that you wish to build into your regime but if you can be successful with exercise you will see it doing wonders for your mood. And some of the benefit comes from not failing and showing yourself that you can create healthy habits. The sense of achievement that comes from increasing your fitness through any type of exercise will do so much to boost your self esteem, reduce stress and improve your mental health overall. And if motivation is an issue you might want to address this by reading our first motivation article here.

It’s just possible that we fail at exercise or we don’t start exercising at all because of unhealthy beliefs. We see the marathon runners or the body builders, the super svelte Olympians or the chap at the local gym who can do 100 press ups without a pause and we think that we could never get to that level. So what’s the point? Or we begin with the hope of that achievement and soon realize how far away that dream is. Realistic expectations and more ‘human’ friendly goals will help us develop healthier beliefs; beliefs that actually drive us forward not backwards. It is true that you are unlikely to win the 100 meters at the Olympic games as there can be only one winner every four years but this doesn’t mean you can’t be running 100 meters faster next year than you are this. 100 press ups is out of the reach of many but adding twenty to your total in one month is well within reach for lots of us. And thinking that because looking like a Greek god is unattainable is no good reason for not engaging in a productive weight lifting regime.

When left to its own devices, that psychology of ours can be a funny thing.

We also make what psychotherapists call thinking errors.


A session at the gym that isn’t as productive as we had hoped can be seen in all or nothing terms – anything short of perfection is a failure! Blaming ourselves for things that are out of our control is often referred to as personalisation. Some people are built for quick bursts of speed or strength and others for longer duration events so it’s not your fault if you are a wiry gazelle and cannot clean and jerk what the rhinos are lifting. Be on the look out also for magnifying your weaknesses and minimising your strengths. You’ll hear yourself thinking that anything you can do is easy and that the achievements of others are super human.

We have already mooted that exercise might do something positive for our mood just by doing it. No fancy thinking required. In their book Well Being, Tom Wrath and Jim Harter identify 5 essential elements of well being. They identify career, social, financial, community and physical as the big 5. Under physical they posit that 20 minutes of exercise a day can significantly boost our well being. They continue to highlight what appears to be a magic minimum of two days a week for to feel happier with additional benefits for training up to 6 days a week. No extra benefit occurred for training a seventh. The effects of exercise seemed to have a considerable affect on one’s mood for at least 12 hours post workout. Probably the most startling suggestion coming from the research and studies in this book is that people who exercised one day felt twice as attractive the next.

Understanding a little about the psychology behind exercise can put us back in control of our efforts and our thinking. But the best thing to do is to experiment for yourself. Sign in with Waetugo, get yourself a free account and add your exercising and workouts into your journal on the site. Feel free to log how you feel in there too and see what changes as you develop your health and fitness.


Good luck with all of your efforts.

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