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Cognitive Behavioral Techniques for the Motivation to Exercise

By Gryphon Adams ; Updated July 18, 2017

Using cognitive behavioral techniques for boosting motivation to exercise involves changing thoughts to affect feelings and actions. There are several versions of cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of psychotherapy originated with Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Therapy in the 1950s, according to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists website. Identifying thoughts that undermine your desire to exercise regularly and countering those thoughts with messages that reinforce your exercise motivation can help you achieve your goals.

Cognitive Behavioral Techniques

The use of cognitive methods to affect sports performance and change habits has a good track record. Athletes often employ the cognitive techniques of mental rehearsal and mental imagery. The idea is that rehearsing success results in improved performance. When you visualize your goals clearly and specifically, and visualize yourself succeeding at your goals, you create a positive state of mind for changing your exercise behavior. Make your mental rehearsal vivid and specific -- see yourself exercising and achieving your fitness goal to build your motivation to exercise. It can take time to master these techniques, and working with a licensed therapist can help.

Achievable Exercise Goals

Beginning with goals you can accomplish gives you the foundation for success. A common way that people sabotage themselves is taking on too much at once. If you've been inactive for a long time, setting a goal to exercise an hour a day is too much. Starting with something you know you can do, such as taking a 10-minute walk, and tracking your accomplishment builds confidence. Setting and meeting achievable exercise goals increases self-efficacy -- the sense of your ability to do a thing. Keeping track of fitness improvements can help you increase exercise motivation.

Identifying Sabotaging Thoughts

A key cognitive behavioral technique for the motivation to exercise is to notice sabotaging thoughts. Paying attention to what goes through your mind when it's time to exercise will help you change the thoughts and habits that hold you back from your goals. Write down each thought, such as, "It's too hard," "I'm too out of shape," "I don't have time," or "I'd rather watch TV." Using worksheets supplied by the American Psychiatric Association's publishing website can help you learn cognitive behavioral techniques and track your progress. Replacing sabotaging thoughts with "positive self-talk" -- encouraging yourself to exercise and acknowledging your accomplishments by making positive statements to yourself, a method recommended by the American Council of Exercise -- is a cognitive behavioral technique.

Replace Sabotage and Create Motivation

Countering each sabotaging thought with a solution or positive thought gives you the power to overcome thoughts that undermine you. If you think you don't have time, plan a solution, such as cutting out a half hour of TV time or using an exercise machine while watching TV. If you think it's too hard to exercise, write out a plan to gradually increase your exercise intensity and add strength training twice a week. Becoming stronger will give you greater endurance for exercise and make your workouts less taxing. Reading over your goals and reasons for exercising daily helps to reinforce motivation.

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