Getting picked last for kickball teams. Trudging across the finish line in the one-mile run long after your classmates. Struggling through pushups in the fitness test. If your childhood memories of gym class are associated with dread, embarrassment and a sense of failure, it could affect how you perceive your own physical abilities years later — and influence how likely you are to get off of the couch as an adult.
A recent large study from Iowa State University found that those with cringe-worthy gym memories were less likely to exercise as adults, while those who looked back fondly on childhood gym class were more likely to stay fit years later. That’s not surprising, says Shilagh A. Mirgain, Ph.D., a distinguished psychologist with UW Health’s Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation.
“Those are formative years,” she says. “Physical activity is often introduced in gym class, and it’s not an opt-in kind of thing. The jocks often shined, but everyone else felt not cool. Those memories can be quite vivid; there can be a lot of emotional charge to them. And our brains tend to be primed to remember the negative more than the positive.”
It’s different with voluntary extracurricular sports, where the fun social element and close bonds with teammates and coaches often make after-school sports a more positive experience, she notes. “But there can be a lack of confidence that develops if your main form of experience is gym class,” she says.
How to Change Your Attitude About Fitness
You can’t rewrite your history, but you can reset your fitness attitude. Mirgain shares these tips:
Change your definition of exercise. “You might think exercise means being on the treadmill for a certain period of time, but those kinds of assumptions can be a barrier,” Mirgain explains. “Exercise is just moving your body.” Consider the full spectrum of activities that can get you moving, whether it’s dancing to music in your living room or doing tai chi in the park.
Revise your mental script. Research shows that a growth mindset — which recognizes that improvement is possible, even when you’re struggling to learn something new — is more beneficial than a fixed mindset that focuses on whether you’re naturally “good” at something. Instead of focusing on the past, congratulate yourself for recommitting yourself to a healthier lifestyle and acknowledge your progress. Try to focus on how good your body feels instead of dwelling on negative thoughts.
Focus on movement over “exercise.” “The goal is movement and getting more active, and our bodies are designed for that,” she notes. “Then you start to ask, ‘what gets me moving?’ and all of a sudden, options start to open up. It could be taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away at the grocery store or taking a 5-minute dance break. Moving really gets us out of our heads and into our body.”
Remember how you felt after your last workout. Think back on the feel-good rush you got from exercise-related endorphins, how you felt less stressed, could think more clearly and slept better that night, and use those fresh, positive memories to propel you back to your workout the next day.
Set small goals. If you haven’t been exercising at all, you might aim for just 10 minutes a day. Manageable goals make it more likely you’ll get started and stick with it, and small wins build up over time. Mirgain shares the story of one woman who began with five minutes of exercise three times a week and then completed a half-marathon within a year. “The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step,” Mirgain says. “A big mistake is when people take on too much all at once. We want to have positive wins so we can override those initial memories that were negative, and build confidence.”
Make it a habit. “Getting in regular exercise several times a week is better than being a weekend warrior who exercises for two hours,” she says. “It’s like with physics: a ball that’s stationary is harder to move than a ball that’s already in motion. Building new habits is all about consistency. If you wait until you want to exercise, it may never happen.” Also, if you exercise only sporadically, you may be more likely to injure yourself.
Make it fun. Try out new activities such as zumba or a water class; tune into your favorite music, podcast or TV show while you work out; make it a date with a friend; or exercise outside in a beautiful setting.
Try mindfulness. “Really notice the sensation of exercise and how your body feels in response; be aware of the blood pumping through your heart,” Mirgain suggests. “You can even use it as a practice of appreciation for your body. You might think, ‘I love all the ways my body can move and all that my body does for me. There are people on the planet who can’t move in these ways.’ Or you might try repeating a mantra or affirmation like ‘motion is lotion,’ ‘my body was made to move’ or ‘just get started.’”
Build in accountability. Maybe it’s finding a workout buddy or paying for an exercise class — whatever it takes to nudge you into showing up even on those days when you don’t feel like it.
Start with the end in mind. Training for a specific goal — such as a charity run/walk or a trip — can keep you motivated. “It helps to have a plan and a destination,” she says.