Mind Over Matter: All physical exercise is ultimately a mind game

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
4 min read

Every time I exercise I have to talk myself into starting. And every time I finish I’m glad I did it.

Every time I exercise I first have to negotiate with myself. My brain starts listing all the reasons why now isn’t a good time. This must be some remnant of survival instincts that want to conserve energy in case it is needed to fend off some unforeseen threat.

The likelihood of being attacked by a sabre-tooth tiger or ambushed by a mastodon are pretty remote these days. Now my survival is more tied to being fit and opening a can of whoop-ass on a burglar. But my brain tells me its better to relax on the couch than visit the pain cave of exercise.

Lying on the couch watching sports is so easy. And pizza is so good. When we watch sports our brain conflates the physical effort we see with our own effort. Fandom is bullshit. What do you mean, “we won” kemosabe?

We lounge, get soft and tired, rinse and repeat.

The physical demands of exercise and activity aren’t nearly as challenging as overcoming the self-talk that is convincing us to stay put.

The only thing that holds us back or gets us our ass in gear is our mental attitude. We can do the physical work. We just create myriad excuses to not do it right now. Kick the can down the road.

Life is a lot like working out. The hardest part is deciding to get going. Once you get over that, its easy.

Getting started each time is the hardest part.

Yogi Berra said,

Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical.

I would generalize that to any physical activity is 90 percent mental. The problem lies in our mental decoupling between the action and the consequences.

Ifsomeone said workout right now or I will kill you, it would be an easy decision and I would start grunting and sweating ASAP. If someone said workout right now and receive a million dollars, we would start hoping around like a frenetic Richard Simmons (save the short shorts).

The immediate big carrot and the big stick both get my attention and put me to work. It’s the decoupling of delayed gratification or consequence that allows us to ignore what is in our best interests long term.

When I stopped to think about it both incentives are always present. If we exercise we live healthier and longer. And if we exercise we are in better shape and more opportunities flow to us. Better-looking people are more successful.

We avoid death and get rich by working out.

It’s a question of immediacy. If the consequence was direct and immediate, we have no problem making the right decision and delaying whatever gratification in order to avoid the dire consequence. But when the consequence is way out on some vague horizon and is the repercussion of cumulative deeds, then we can easily dismiss it and continue our lax behavior.

The same reasoning applies to diet and nutrition. We all know that being overweight is bad for our health and limits our mobility. It also makes us less attractive to prospective mates and employers. If we were told that if we didn’t eat that ice cream sundae or pizza that we could immediately have sex with the partner of our dreams, we would most likely toss the fork over our shoulder and prepare to get busy. Same if we were told to put down the soda and pie, or die. We would drop it and avoid demise.

It’s the delayed nature of the consequences that make our discipline squishy.

The same goes for smoking, drinking, and whatever else we do that we know, we know, is not optimal for our long-term prospects.

This also goes for personal finance and wealth creation. The surest way to wealth is a long term saving and investing strategy.

I realize I tend to decouple my actions from ultimate consequence that I don’t want when they are far apart. I am searching for any edge that can help me collapse the action/consequence so I have a better chance of doing the right thing. The thinking above has helped me to see me weakness just a little better. I hope you find it helpful in your journey.

Getting started is the hardest part. Get started and remember, there is no end.

Just Do It.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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