To Your Health: The ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and the Cost of Competition in Creating Lasting Exercise Habits?

Contributor: Rich Butler, MS, USPTA
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Superbowl week means the great sports quotes come calling back. ”You play to win the game. Win at all cost.  Just win baby.  To be the best you must beat the best.  Show me a good loser, and I will show you a loser.”  According to Canyon Ranch psychologist Dr. Jeff Rossman, the USA is one of the most competitive nations in the world.  He claims we try to win at everything.  So what does that have to do with you and your exercise?

You just finished your barre class, tennis match, 5k, or weight workout.  What are you most likely to say to yourself?  “Wow, that was great.  I think I am getting better!”  Or “Yikes, I have really fallen off from last year.  Bummer, I still have that roll in my middle.” In the work that Canyon Ranch does, lifestyle habits are constantly being discussed and evaluated.  Activity and exercise is where I spend my time.  Oddly, it is common to listen to a guest qualify their answers about their exercise with a hint of self-doubt and a lack of confidence. “I run, but slowly.”  “Yes, I go to the gym, but I do the same thing every time.”  “Sure, I get steps, but I am so out of shape.”  So what gives?  What is with the negative self-talk and the loser mentality?  For answers I interviewed Dr. Rossman, who has been a pillar of the Health and Healing Department at Canyon Ranch for over 25 years.

RB: Why do people cast a negative view on their activity?  What is the psychology of the negative self-talk?

JR: For some individuals, they have a prevailing negative mindset that they are never doing enough or reaching their potential.  For others, like athletes, they often compare their most recent achievements to their past when they were at their peak and hold themselves to a very high standard.  But there is a 3rd reason. These people may be a product of the significant emphasis the fitness industry has on ‘High Intensity Training’ (H.I.T.).  Many people look down on moderate levels of exercise because it is not at the H.I.T. level, and that leaves them with a sense they did not do enough.

RB: So, is the competitive culture that is ever-present in the U.S. a negative when people are attempting to maintain a healthy level of activity in their lives?

JR: Yes.  Absolutely it is.  This country so glorifies winning and creates a competition out of almost anything.  Fishing, dancing, singing (all wonderful recreational activities that can be done for a lifetime).  We have turned everything into a competition, and we have quantified everything imaginable.  Even the activity monitors are being used as performance meters, and people are competing to see who reaches the most steps per day.  People can become obsessed by it. The perfect can be the enemy of the good.

RB: How do you encourage individuals, as you say, to make peace with their choices relating to lifestyle habits, including activity?

JR: When it comes to exercise, do what you love.  And if there is an exercise you need to do that you don’t currently love, find a way to love it.  Be creative, select something to listen to or watch, and then try and make it fun and enjoyable so you look forward to doing it.  Consider including a social element like a group class or an activity with friends.  Expose yourself to something beautiful, like nature, to enhance the experience.  

One last point Dr. Rossman makes is that people have their own exercise personality, and that is ok.  Do the broccoli lovers reign supreme over the spinach crowd?  That is silly; the righteous attitudes surrounding dietary trends confuse the novice into thinking they should choose a side and hold firm.  In kind, the Peloton lover will argue the powerwalking neighbor is not really exercising.  There is no need for the exercise culture to create a caste system that only has room at the top for the 8% body fat Cross Fitting grandmother.  That only leaves a majority of us mere mortals to stare up in awe of them, leaving some of us thinking ‘Why do I even bother?’

Activity levels, even at the lowest doses, are critical to fending off the onslaught of non-communicable diseases here in North America.  Body fat, blood sugars, and lipid scores are not dropping.  Just as a great coach motivates players to get better, we need to encourage people to pursue their preferred activities and promote the American College of Sports Medicine philosophy of ‘something is better than nothing.’  Save your ‘We are #1’ chant for the game.  Just move!


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