April is about the time New Year’s resolutions dissolve and gyms become less crowded again. It’s not that folks have lost their desire to trim pounds or increase their level of fitness. For some, it’s simply a motivation problem. They want to continue, but just can’t seem to make the time amidst competing demands. But for others, they just don’t enjoy exercise. I once watched a woman jogging whose scrunched up face displayed a combination of irritation and defeat. She wasn’t enjoying herself, but felt compelled to continue. So it’s no surprise that keeping our fitness habits going is difficult. Any activity that isn’t innately enjoyable quickly becomes drudgery and nearly impossible to maintain.
No matter what your current feelings regarding exercise, it turns out there is a way to make the activity more enjoyable. It doesn’t involve hiring a personal trainer or signing up for a Zumba class (although those might be nice compliments once you get going). The only thing that’s keeping you from a better exercise regime is your own head.
Ironically, I discovered this trick while doing something entirely sedentary: writing. One of the more difficult aspects of creative writing, especially for the beginner, is eliciting that dream-like state where the words and ideas flow easily. There’s good reason the myths about waiting for inspiration to strike or reliance on a muse persist—for many, the ability to induce the wellspring of creativity remains elusive. Writers often create elaborate rituals to get themselves into this space: they only write during a certain time of day or they have a “lucky pen.”
What I discovered is that these rituals are all methods for subduing the analytical left brain and letting your more creative right brain take over. With time and dedication, you can actually physically feel the mental switch take place. And once you know what that switch feels like, you can learn to control it. That’s how the best writers are able to crank out pages of good writing while others struggle in front of a blank screen or notepad for hours. Good writers know how to generate the mental switch on command.
So what’s the connection to exercise? When I saw that woman jogging who looked so miserable, I wanted to tell her, “It’s all in your head!” All she needed was to get out of her analytical left brain, which was likely paying attention to the amount of time she’d been running or the number of miles left to go. The left brain is prone to focusing on details and lists, making exercise more of a chore than fun. But given the chance, the right brain can make your aerobic workout take on a timeless quality. You might get to the end of a run and say, “Wow. I’m done already?”
Just as your body has that weightless feeling when you’re under water, your concept of exertion and time disappear while day-dreaming. In your head, there are no limits, there’s nothing that isn’t open to you. In fact, many times when I’ve used this technique I actually feel like my brain is out ahead of me, a tether between us, egging me on. Plus, creativity can create its own adrenaline-like feeling—it generates energy instead of zapping it.
Here’s your step-by-step guide to attaining the left to right brain switch:
1) Just like a writer, pick a certain time of day and a certain activity to practice on. It doesn’t really matter what activity you pick, but aerobic exercises where you don’t need to count or pay close attention to anything work best. Once you get proficient at the technique, you can expand it to activities like weight lifting.
2) While exercising, let your mind wander, but try to “think” in images instead of words. Pretend you are watching a movie inside your head: taking the vacation you always wanted or receiving a big award. Do not watch TV—this engages your left brain and will hamper your transition. Music is okay as long as it remains a background noise (no singing along!).
3) Each time you are able to make the switch (that is, you become so engrossed in your dream, you almost lose awareness of your immediate surroundings), try remember what it felt like. Note what your body sensation and what ideas or dreams enabled you to enter that trance-like state.
4) Once you know what it feels like, work on getting to your creative space as soon as possible. When you’re proficient, it should only take 5 minutes or less.
Unlike much advice, which tells you to simply do something a certain number of times until you form a habit, these steps are only necessary until you are able to consistently achieve the brain switch. For those who are more naturally inclined towards creativity, it may only take a couple of weeks of dedicated practice. For others, it may takes a month or more to get it right. The key to making this method work is to remember that positive feeling the next time you’re struggling to get yourself out the door. You’ll not only feel better for having exercised, you’ll soon feel better while doing it too.
Jennifer Gresham is freelance writer and the founder of EveryDayBright, a blog dedicated to her musings on how to live a successful life with Optimism!