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phys ed

Never mind our muscles; when it comes to working out, it’s our brains that fail us most often. This is true no matter where a person is on the experience spectrum. Beginners doubt their abilities, seasoned gym rats succumb to dogmatic thinking, elite athletes become distracted and complacent. When trying to accomplish something significant, maintaining a sharp mental edge is what separates those who achieve their goals from the rest of the pack.

There are all sorts of tricks and tactics for recalibrating our minds when they begin to wander. The method that’s worked best for me is the “reboot” – a brief reprieve from chasing after our big, audacious goals in favour of having some fun in a new arena.

No matter where you are on your fitness journey, if you’re starting to lose focus I’ve got the solution.

Beginner’s blues

Gym veterans tend to forget just how overwhelming this whole fitness thing can be for absolute beginners. Finding a quality gym that promotes a positive culture is hard enough. Add to that the confusion over what type of training program to follow, figuring out how to use the equipment properly, and the challenge in sticking to a consistent schedule week after week and it’s no wonder most New Year’s newbies throw in the towel within only three weeks.

Having some goals to aim for is a good idea, but the number one priority for anyone who’s new to fitness training should be to just show up on a regular basis. Three days a week is a good start. Five days is even better. Keep the sessions relatively short, no more than 45 minutes. We’re trying to build some positive momentum here; piling up a series of small wins right off the bat is the quickest way to make a new habit stick.

As for the age-old question of “What should I actually be doing?”, fitness classes can be a great place to start. Some gyms offer on-boarding sessions with personal trainers to help make new members feel more comfortable in what can be a strange setting for the uninitiated. Or maybe you’re not quite ready for the gym just yet, in which case I recommend committing to a daily 45-minute walk. Remember, staying consistent is the name of the game. If you fall off track, just dust yourself off and try again.

Are you experienced?

The intermediate stage is where most of us spend the duration of our training lives. The fitness habit has become ingrained and you have settled into a solid groove. You don’t need any cheerleading or tough-love (although an equally adept training partner would be nice). In short, you know what you’re doing and have some results to prove it.

Does resistance training matter? What about mobility work?

At this stage the greatest danger is dogmatic thinking. Too many gym-goers make the mistake of falling in love with the training methods that first brought them success. I once had a conversation with a person who took great pride in the fact she had been following the exact same training program for years on end. As we talked I learned that she was also bored most of the time and had been dealing with the same nagging injuries for about as long as she had been following this seemingly sacred routine. When I suggested that perhaps she should consider trying something new, the only response I got was an incredulous stare.

Plateaus, boredom, injuries caused by overuse – each of these stumbling blocks can be obliterated by applying even minor changes to your program every three or four weeks. Instead of barbells, use dumbbells. Instead of jogging, try cycling. And every few months, try something completely different all together. Most of us let our strengths dictate how we train; chances are you’ve got some lagging qualities that could use some attention.

The expert’s curse

I’ve been lifting weights and training in one form of martial arts or another for 25 years. I’ve studied anatomy, physiology and biology at a college level, and have been a full-time personal trainer for the last seven years. Am I an expert? Maybe. But you’ll never hear me use those words.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” So says the Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki in his classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, summarizing nicely the pitfall most common with the elite among us. Stated another way: once we start believing our own hype, complacency comes a-knocking.

How to make fitness more attainable and less toxic

No matter how long you’ve been training, there’s always a new challenge to pursue or a specific technique to refine. Think outside of the gym – to what other use could you be putting all these skills and strengths you’ve spent so long developing? Have you tried competing? How about teaching or mentoring? When gym folks talk about the transformative power of fitness, I like to think this is the sort of stuff they’re referring to. Transcend the stereotypical image of the muscle-bound meathead who lives only to lift and you’ll have achieved true expert status.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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