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Five ways to wellbeing, part 2: Be active

Written by Koen Smets (3 Dec 2014)

"Mens sana in corpore sano".

The ancient Romans clearly already knew how important a healthy body is for a healthy mind. In our time too, few people doubt that it is important exercise regularly: wherever we look, whatever we read or listen to, we get messages urging us to do something about our fitness.

But knowing that something is important doesn’t necessarily mean we also act upon it. Regular exercise means we need to get into a habit, and along the path to developing such a habit we encounter lots of excuses - I am sure yours are at least as good as mine!

Curing excusitis

One thing we can do is to make it easier to exercise - literally remove the obstacles. For example, if going for a run in the morning is your thing (as it is for me), what is it that stops you from actually doing it? Would it be the fact that your running kit is still in the wardrobe or on a chair upstairs? Might it be that you just woke up too late, so that the amount of traffic would make your usual jog too unpleasant? Or perhaps you hadn’t counted on the fact that it’s drizzling, and you don’t know where your rainproof hoodie is?

Now these are not much of a real obstacle, yet they give us a solid get-out clause. What I started doing is make sure all I need is ready and waiting for me near the front door: my trainers, socks, shorts and t-shirt stare me right in the face as I come down the stairs. And I have a waterproof hoodie on the coat stand to counter any excuse that it’s too wet as well!

Positive peer pressure

But that nudge may not be enough. The problem is that when we commit something to ourselves, no matter how sincerely we mean it, we’re also very lenient towards ourselves, and we are all too happy to forgive ourselves for breaking a promise even before having made it. A commitment to someone else is different though: letting down your tennis partner feels very different from deciding you’re not quite up to going for a jog this evening.

If you make yourself indispensable, your absence is a problem for your companions, and the anticipated pain of disappointing them is all the stronger. A friend of mine who really had to get into a habit of exercise for serious health reasons joined a local jogging group, and for him it’s not so much being needed, as peer pressure that keeps him on the straight and narrow: even if there’s a sharp frost, the motivational power of knowing that 12 of your friends are out jogging, who will not hesitate to tell you you’re a wimp if you don’t turn up, is pretty convincing.

Habits are much easier to get out of, than to get into, but with a sprinkling of barrier-lowering or peer pressure we can ensure that we keep both our mens and our corpus sane.