Somewhere deep inside your brain, down a neural pathway or two, nestled behind grey matter, is a little cluster of cells. They might look innocent enough, but their motives are sinister. They collude to create your inner quitter, and that crafty chick is only interested in one thing: railroading you away from healthy intentions and out of the good-for-you things pencilled in your schedule. She’s the reason you take your freshly washed gym kit to work only to bring it home again still clean; it’s her fault that you drop two week’s worth of wages at the farmer’s market and then hit Menulog come Wednesday; in fact, she’s at her happiest when you’re horizontal on the sofa cramming M&Ms into your mouth, all mindful intentions of doing a little at-home yoga forgotten.
As our brains have evolved over millions of years, new ways of thinking can interfere with old, and vice versa,’ explains Simon Marshall, sport psychologist and author of The Brave Athlete: Calm The F*ck Down And Rise To The Occasion. “At first, they just had to keep us alive with simple powers like fight or flight. That’s the limbic system, and we call it the ‘chimp brain’, because it can’t think rationally or logically. As we started to walk upright, forage and make shelter, we developed the ability to think in abstract terms. That happens in the frontal cortex, which is your ‘professor brain’, and is perfectly rational and logical. Any mental anguish is a fight between these two brains.”
It seems counter-intuitive; your brain knows what’s good for you, but stops you doing it anyway. So what gives? “Your brain’s designed to protect you from harm, both physical and psychological,” adds Marshall. “The holy trinity of psychological harm is humiliation, embarrassment and inadequacy, so if any of those are possibilities, your brain will try to stop you. Hormones and neurotransmitters, like cortisol, glucocorticoids and catecholamines, are released as part of the stress response from your limbic system. It’s the body’s way of keeping you alive and your ego intact. Take cortisol – it’s released into the blood when you think about a ‘threatening’ situation, and both helps you prepare to tackle the challenge and exacerbates feelings of fear, doubt and anxiety.” If you’ve ever come last in a race, struggled to breathe at the end of a spin class or fallen off a treadmill, your brain remembers. The good news? With a few shifts in your behaviour, you can beat your mind at its own, erm, mind games and stop it derailing your otherwise totally achievable health goals.
The race flake
You promise to join your friends on a 10k and train accordingly, but as race day approaches, the nerves of a group event kick in, so you pull any excuse out of your arse and withdraw.
“When the idea was first floated, your emotional ‘chimp’ liked the idea of basking in the glory, and your ‘professor’ reasoned, ‘It’s only 30 bucks, there’s time to train and it’ll be fun to be part of a #fitfam,’” says Marshall. “But as race day looms nearer, your chimp starts to worry about the risk of humiliation. It desperately tries to convince your ‘professor’ brain to find a rational reason to stay away and protect your ego. You suddenly get busy at work, have a sore throat or need to get more sleep. All seemingly plausible reasons why racing isn’t a good idea anymore.”
According to Marshall, the key is to acknowledge your fears as soon as they crop up (after a tough training session, say) and address each one with logic. Are you really challenging your body beyond its means? How likely are you to actually come last or injure yourself? Chances are, you’ll realise your concerns are irrational. Instead, focus on what you can control: effort and attitude. ‘When the starting gun goes off, your fitness level and preparation are out of your hands – as are the weather, the course and the competition,’ says Marshall. “But if you can finish the race thinking, ‘I gave it my all,’ that’s a success.”
The gym dodge
You start the week with good intentions; book into a class and pack your kit first thing, only to talk yourself out of going mid-afternoon.
The part of your brain that’s responsible for self-control, the anterior cingulate cortex, is put to work from the moment you wake up. It stops your chimp from hitting snooze repeatedly and having a third slice of Nutella on toast. But later in the day, it runs out of steam. “It tires lineally, so as the day wears on, your ability to resist temptation becomes weaker,” says Marshall. “So something that seemed like a good idea at 10am can end up feeling like the last thing you want to do come 5pm.”
Exercise first thing, before your brain has time to talk you out of it. But Marshall also suggests working on habit forming. “A neurological loop – of trigger, ritual, reward – forms good habits,” he explains. “The trigger fires the starting pistol – this could be placing your alarm out of reach so you have to get out of bed to press snooze. The ritual needs to be as barrier-free as possible, so go to the gym armed with a 15-minute circuit or do a pre-planned workout in your living room. Afterwards, reward yourself. My reward is an espresso – I know that if I don’t do my workout, I have to go without.” But reward within reason: a box of 12 Krispy Kremes is not the one. Soz.
The fridge freak-out
You come over all Elsa’s Wholesome Life and go wild in the aisles, to the point where your fridge now resembles the Masterchef pantry. But the thought of cooking feels overwhelming, so you give up and order a takeaway.
“This is a classic example of an ill-formed habit,” says Marshall. “You’ve thought through the goal but don’t have a plan for the ritual and reward.” Which means there’s no pushback when you naturally start doubting your culinary skills and newfound intentions.
It comes down to habit-forming. First, make the goal manageable. Instead of telling anyone who’ll listen your plans to live off salad for the rest of your days, start by making a healthy homemade lunch two days a week and build on your progress. Next, make sure your plans are specific by spending a couple of hours on a Sunday planning your meals for the week ahead and only buy those ingredients. “The trigger is that you’ve committed to spending Sundays preparing food for the week. The routine is you make a big grilled chicken salad, so all you have to do is take it out of the fridge. The reward is pulling the whole thing off and getting to eat a delicious meal that you planned in advance.” Not to mention the money you’ll save.
You want to try that new class everyone’s raving about, but you’ve seen the sweaty selfies/crop tops/cliquey high-fives – you know you won’t fit in, so what’s the point?
“Your brain is wired to determine your social standing, so your chimp scans the situation to identify threats,” says Marshall. “It’s called a confirmation bias, and means you’ll see the three women at the front of the class with rock-hard abs, but not the five huffing and puffing at the back, because your brain doesn’t perceive them as a threat.”
Realise everyone feels intimidated at some point; and it’s likely there will always be someone fitter and stronger than you. The key is to stop interpreting those feelings as a roadblock and start harnessing them for motivation. “Imposter syndrome is an evolutionary tool to keep you developing your skills,” says Marshall. So instead of avoiding a machine because you’re scared you’ll look clueless, ask someone how to use it. “Your chimp may think that exposes you as a gym idiot, but it allows the other person to think, ‘Here’s a chance to show my knowledge.’ They’re not evaluating you – they’re loving the ego boost.” In exercise – as in life – the magic happens outside your comfort zone.
Not everyone is feeling your new regimen. Your partner hates your 6am starts and your mates call you boring when you chow down on salmon at dinner while they tuck into loaded nachos. You’re many things, but boring you ain’t. So you prove them wrong by digging into the cheese on cheese and staying out so late you miss the gym.
“Most people’s chimp brains are susceptible to peer pressure because a fundamental need of your chimp is to feel accepted and praised, rather than rejected and criticised,” says Marshall. But social conditioning is also to blame. “Years of social psychological research has confirmed that we generally strive for conformity. We don’t like to be the one who stands out from the crowd because that exposes us to potential criticism, judgement and rejection.” But your ability to resist is also influenced by your character, the situation in question and your mood in that moment.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: don’t let the haters bring you down. If you think they will, stop hanging out with them – at least during times when your willpower reserves are likely to be depleted. Your self-control is at its strongest in the morning, so why not suggest meeting for brunch instead of dinner. Then, as your propensity to wobble increases throughout the day, schedule in some time with people whose goals are more aligned with yours. Remember, your chimp just wants you to conform – it doesn’t care if that means tucking into tortilla chips or doing another 10 squats.