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Want To Move Your Body More? Psychological Flexibility Can Help

May 23, 2022

We all have internal barriers to getting more movement. Here are 5 steps to move more using psychological flexibility.

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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When I ask clients about moving their bodies, the most common responses I get are, “I don’t have enough time” and “I’ll start next week.” Despite knowing its numerous mental and physical benefits, movement slips to the bottom of our to-do lists. 

We value moving, we admire people who do it, and we actually like it (once we get going). But, we could use some psychological tools to get over our inner barriers.

Some Common Internal Barriers to Movement:

  • Unhelpful thoughts: It’s too hard
  • Uncomfortable Sensations: I feel out of breath
  • Self-criticism: I’m lazy and out of shape
  • Rigid Beliefs: In order for movement to “count” I have to do it for xx minutes
  • Lack of Motivation: I don’t really care about moving more, it’s just something “I should do”

Many of us respond to these barriers by pushing ourselves to exercise even though we don’t like it (“no pain, no gain!”). Or we avoid, give up, and postpone moving altogether. It becomes a cycle of control and avoidance:

Push Yourself → Give Up and Avoid → Feel Bad → Push Yourself

Psychological Flexibility Offers Another Route

Psychological flexibility is an approach to living where you stop trying to control your experience and start accepting it so that you can take action toward what you care about. 

When you are psychologically flexible with your movement you:

  • Connect your movement to something that is meaningful to you
  • Stay in the present moment without adding a story to it
  • Take a flexible perspective on movement that moves beyond “exercise”
  • Don’t always listen to what your head has to say
  • Commit to taking small moves toward your movement values, even when it’s uncomfortable

Psychological Flexibility helps you move beyond your mind’s limitations and increases your chances of moving your body more. For example, researchers at Drexel University randomly assigned participants to two, 2-hour sessions of either “exercise education” training or psychological flexibility training. The participants that got the psychological flexibility training in mindfulness, acceptance, and values were more likely to exercise than those who received education. Psychological flexibility doesn’t just help you exercise more, it changes how you relate to your experience with exercise. In another randomized control study, sedentary women who received training in psychological flexibility showed increased post-exercise enjoyment, decreased perceived effort, and increased tolerance of discomfort. 

We don’t need to learn more reasons about why we “should” exercise, what we need is more strategies to flexibly navigate our inner barriers. Below are five things you can try this week to stretch your mental muscles and move your physical ones.

Five Steps to Move More With Psychological Flexibility

Identify your movement values. Your values are your motivation superpower. They are the reason you get moving today, and will keep you at it tomorrow when your inspiration fizzles. Answer these questions to clarify your movement values. 

  • Why is it important to you to move your body more?
  • If you were to meet your 90-year-old self what would they tell you about movement? What about your 8-year-old self?
  • How will moving more impact other domains of your life such as your family, eating, work, or the environment?

Breathe in discomfort. Moving your body can be uncomfortable at times. Resisting or avoiding discomfort makes it worse. When you allow for the discomfort with a caring, open heart, you will be better able to tolerate it and just might even learn to enjoy it!  Try this Tibetan Tönglen practice:

  • breathe in physical discomfort and or emotional resistance
  • breath out compassion, space, and encouragement. 

Take your mind for a walk. Your mind can be the least helpful coach sometimes. Expect thoughts like, “I don’t want to” and “I’m too tired” when it comes to movement. You can’t turn off your mind, but you can take it with you! Like whining kids, your mind might protest, but it’s your heart and your values that get to choose what you do with your body. Try saying this to your mind the next time it protests:

  • Thank you, Mind
  • I’ve got this
  • We are going anyway
  • You will thank me later

Challenge a self-story. Self-stories start with words like, “I am,” “I can’t,” or “I don’t.” Take one of your self-stories about movement and challenge it. For example, if you tell yourself, “I don’t have enough time,” build movement into activities you are already doing. 

    • Walk around the block while your kid is at piano lessons
    • Stretch your quads while you brush your teeth
    • Make your meeting a walking meeting 
    • How many ways can you prove your story wrong?

Cultivate more “nutritious movement.” Sure, we need to be moving more, but we also need to be moving more “nutritiously”, according to biomechanist Katy Bowman. Your body needs movement macronutrients such as weight-bearing activity and getting your heart rate up, but also micronutrients such as twisting your torso and flexing your toes. Making your movement more nutritious will also make it more rewarding in the long run because when used in daily life, movement nurtures community, family time, and connecting with nature. Consider these ways to ways to move more nutritiously:

  • Increase the variety in what Bowman calls your “movement diet”
  • Move more body parts, especially neglected ones
  • Vary your seating and standing positions
  • Play with your kids! Try crossing the monkey bars or hanging from a tree
  • Include movement in your celebrations

Evolutionarily we were designed to move our bodies in a variety of ways, with others, and in nature. But when faced with internal barriers such as thoughts, stories, and discomfort it can be a challenge. It takes psychological flexibility to get unstuck and move more in our lives. 

As you connect with your movement values, get some space from unhelpful thoughts, and get comfortable with being uncomfortable you may rediscover the joy of movement that has been with you all along. 

If you are interested in learning more about nutritious movement and how to cultivate a more movement-rich lifestyle, I highly recommend that you listen to this interview with Katy Bowman on Your Life in Process!

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