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As an Oxygen reader, chances are that you’re already in on a little secret: Keeping a positive attitude toward your fitness means better workouts, more burned calories and sustained motivation for sculpting your best body ever. When you’re loving your fit lifestyle you’re more eager to hit the gym, cook a clean meal and, according to a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, you’re actually more likely to take the stairs, park your car further from Bloomingdale’s and engage in other forms of exercise, without even thinking about it.
But seeing the glass as half full is more relevant than ever for active women because new research shows that staying positive can also have a slew of health benefits. For example, a study published last year in the journal Circulation found that optimistic women had a 16 percent lower risk than pessimists of having a heart attack and a 14 percent lower risk of death for any reason.
And if that’s not enough, one study also found that women and men with an optimistic outlook may fight infections better than pessimists.
“Our attitudes influence everything we do, from personal habits to how we cope with stress,” says Hilary Tindle, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
The big question is: What do we do next?
“We don’t necessarily know how to create a more positive implicit attitude,” says David Conroy, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Penn State. But we know a lot about explicit attitudes — the things you consciously tell yourself and the steps you follow to stick with your fitness habit.
Here are five steps you can take to start building that positive attitude today.
1. Build upon your strengths
Look first at other areas of your life, says health and productivity coach Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar. Shaar, who is also a trainer, works with top-level executives on wellness, and has found that this is one of the best exercises for helping them make positive changes as well as fitness gains.
• Take an assessment. Think of real-life situations/challenges (outside of the gym) and the skills you used to deal with them. Write down the top five strengths that come to mind (e.g., creativity, leadership, curiosity, persistence or hope).
• Make a plan for incorporating each strength into both your fitness program and daily life. For example, Shaar says, if you consistently notice that hope gets you through tough situations, tap into your hope by envisioning how you’ll still have the same energy level in 10 years because you are taking care of yourself.
• Naturally curious? Shaar suggests feeding that curiosity by making sure that you always try something new in every workout, or trying out a new clean-eating dish each week.
• If it’s leadership where you’re strong, then think of the good example you’ll be setting for your family by sticking with your fitness habit.
2. Tune in
“Tune in to your workouts instead of trying to always tune them out,” says cognitive behavioral therapist Rob Udewitz, PhD, of Behavior Therapy of New York. Udewitz works with many athletes, and they often talk about their mental struggles and self-defeating thoughts. There are two ways he counsels athletes and fitness enthusiasts to tune in:
Notice your thinking patterns when you’re planning your goals, contemplating your next move or even in the middle of your workout. So instead of self-talk riddled with absolutes such as, “I am never going to get through this workout,” or “I always let myself get distracted and take the easy way out,” make statements like, “I might struggle, but I believe I can finish strong,” or “Even if I’m tempted to give up on this goal, I’ll take it day by day.” Challenge the “all or none” thinking whenever you see it cropping up, he says.
The other approach is basic mindful meditation. Simply notice your thoughts (as you’re working out, or even in 10-minute chunks throughout the day), and pay attention to the signals your body is sending. But instead of trying to change your thoughts, you’re just tuning in to them, like words on a movie screen. Focus on your breathing patterns and when thoughts distract you, notice them, and return to your breathing. Being more mindful helps you feel more empowered, and less judgmental about yourself – which ultimately makes your workouts more productive. And if it works so well in the gym, just think how effective this technique can be in any day-to-day situation where you’re having negative thoughts.
3. Think like a novice
Think about when you first started your job, the first time you got on the treadmill or your first strength-training workout. As you were beginning, you probably hadn’t built up all kinds of expectations about your performance. “True beginners don’t have that ‘I should’ attitude,” Udewitz says. They’re just trying to learn as much as they can and soak in the experience — which translates into a positive, relaxed attitude. Channel your beginner spirit by:
• Thinking of yourself as a student, eager to study and learn as much as possible about your topic – in this case, fitness and good health.
• Having the mindset of a beginner, even if you’re well beyond a beginner’s level, physically speaking. Set goals through the eyes of a beginner.
• Surrendering yourself to the day-by-day process, rather than focusing on the end. “The ‘shoulds’ and ‘have-tos’ just get in the way of your good plan,” Udewitz says.
4. Follow the peak-end rule
A huge part of building that positive fitness attitude is simply having positive thoughts about fitness. One trick that Shaar loves is the peak-end rule. “Think about an event in your life that you remember really fondly, such as a vacation or competition,” she says. Chances are, it had a great peak – or special moment – and a strong end. Even if the rest of the experience was just so-so, if it had those two things, it winds up set in your memory in a positive way.
• Harness this principle for your workouts, Shaar says. Design your workouts with a strong peak – perhaps a favorite exercise or a fast part of your run set to a favorite song – and be very present in that peak time. Do the same for your meals (your favorite food sandwiched between ingredients you might not be so crazy about) and apply it to any other situation in life where you’re dealing with options you love and also hate.
• Create workouts with a good ending. It doesn’t necessarily mean an all-out sprint or a heavy load of weights at the end. Plan an end that includes something that you enjoy and that makes you feel rejuvenated.
5. Practice gratitude
“See your workouts as a partnership with your body, rather than a battle with it,” says certified personal trainer and yoga teacher Julia Pearl, of Arizona. For example, do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and say mean things about body parts you’re less than thrilled with? “If this is what you do at the gym, you’re not going to want to keep going back. Why would you be excited about spending time with someone who treats you this way?” she says.
• Shift the energy of your workouts by practicing gratitude. While you’re lifting weights, run through a checklist of five things that you love about your body. “Focus on those things,” she says. “That way, the gym becomes the place where you say nice things to yourself.”
• Appreciate how good you feel when you’re done working out, or enjoying a clean meal. Write down what you’re thankful for (in your exercise log or as a daily affirmation in your planner), and then focus on that gratitude. “You’ll naturally want to have that feeling the next day, and the next day, and so on, and it’s a lot easier to keep going back to the gym,” Pearl says.
• Any time you’re feeling stressed or negative, write in a gratitude journal. Offset your bad thoughts by listing three things, whether they are your friends, your family or your physical abilities, that you are thankful for.