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Empower Yourself Through Exercise

Use your mind to improve your workout, and your workout to improve your life.

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Hero Images/Getty Images,

by Abigail Lorge

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Just knowing that exercise is good for you doesn’t make it any easier to get off the couch and on the nearest treadmill. But the latest research on positive psychology—the science behind living the good life—offers a fresh approach to fitness that helps even the least motivated among us get excited, and energizes mind and body at the same time. We spoke to psychology researchers, wellness experts and professors about how to apply a more positive mental approach to getting the exercise you need and, in the process, improve your life from the inside out—even if the last time you touched your toes was when you learned to tie your shoes.


Bogged down in inertia? (You’re not alone.) According to Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a professor at The New School in New York City, one way to fight your next motivational flatline is to zero in on how you’d like to feel as a result of exercising. “Pick a word that symbolizes how you want to feel after class,” says Petrzela, who’s also a group exercise instructor. “You could say, ‘I want to feel accomplished,’ ‘I want to feel stronger,’ or ‘I want to be an inspiration to somebody else.’”

Not only does Petrzela take this approach with her students during class; she also uses it to drive her own high-intensity fitness routines. “It’s sort of hellish while you’re doing it,” she admits, “but the exhilaration that I feel at the end is what I focus on.” So the next time your inner athlete starts griping about that last set of crunches, consider the state of mind you want to achieve—and how great you’re going to feel when you get there.


Think about one of your favorite songs. (Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” seems especially fitting for this, well, exercise.) You may not be dancing in the streets, but you’re probably feeling some kind of pick-me-up. That’s because music is a natural motivator—especially in terms of physical activity. Research shows that listening to music can cause your sense of exertion (i.e., how much it hurts) to decrease and your physiological performance to pick up. In other words, before your mind even registers and reacts to the song, your body responds to the beat by increasing your heart rate and respiration. Which means that listening to Taylor Swift might actually make you swifter!

Not surprisingly, music has a positive effect on your psyche, too. Recent studies show that when you listen to music, your epinephrine levels increase and that triggers higher quantities of the transmitter serotonin—which is the stuff that puts you in a happier mood. So crank up your favorite playlist—and let the good times roll!


The exhilaration that I feel at the end of my workout is what I focus on.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, professor at The New School, New York City


On any given day, there are lots (and lots) of reasons not to exercise. Your last meeting ran late. The traffic was bad. Your socks are missing. Or maybe you’d just rather eat ice cream. Whatever the obstacle, the next time you hit your alarm and opt out of a workout, “stay in bed and forget the regret,” says Petrzela. “Just enjoy it and allow yourself to move forward.” Otherwise, the problem isn’t the training session you missed; it’s the mental energy you waste berating yourself over your choice to take a pass. Instead, own your decision and skip wallowing in the remorse.


You have to admit it feels pretty darn good to flash a finisher’s medal at the end of a race or to hit the mall for a post-weight-loss shopping spree. But the key to staying dedicated to a new exercise regimen is to identify what motivates you from the inside—like taking pride in developing your strength or reaching a new personal best.

When it comes to weight and body image, differentiating between tangible and intangible rewards can be especially tricky, says Christine Whelan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Oftentimes we think we’ll be happier if we lose 10 pounds, but in fact, we’re sort of confused about what the source of happiness is,” says Whelan. “You might lose 10 pounds and still not be happy, because really what you wanted was to have better self-esteem or to be more attractive to your spouse—or some other thing that doesn’t actually have anything to do with those 10 pounds.” On the other hand, you could feel great about losing those 10 pounds—and why wouldn’t you? But, says Whelan, it’s also important to recognize that your happiness is probably less about your slammin’ new bod and more the result of your personal sense of achievement. 


Shut down that cynical voice in your head for a moment and consider finding a mantra that moves you—literally. “I believe I will succeed,” and “I am a star” are two suggestions from Patricia Moreno, the creator of intenSati, a mind-body method where participants shout out empowering affirmations during an intense exercise routine. The idea, says Moreno, is that when you hear yourself say those words aloud during exercise—as endorphins are pumping through your body—“you create a new pattern in your brain which makes this [positive mantra] more acceptable.”

OK, now you’re thinking: There’s no way I’m shouting, “I am powerful!” after every set of lunges. But the fact is, that same positive mantra can have an impact outside of the gym. “We’re always in conversation with ourselves, most of the time quite subconsciously,” says Petrzela, who’s also an intenSati leader. “The function of intenSati is to raise your awareness of how you’re talking to yourself and then upgrade the conversation.” So determine your personal slogan and try saying it to yourself—inwardly (fine) or aloud (even better)—for 10 minutes during your next workout. By drilling that new script into your mind as you exercise, chances are the next time you’re in a challenging situation at work or at home, you’ll default to the same “I’m a warrior” or “I am strong” mode.

You might lose 10 pounds and still not be happy, because you really wanted better self-esteem which has nothing to do with those 10 pounds.

Christine Whelan, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Life Reimagined thought leader


Ten years ago Sue Warnick retired from teaching and moved to the Jersey shore, where she didn’t know many people. She began attending exercise classes and found that as much as she enjoyed the physical benefits, it was the community that really drew her in. “The class totally lends itself to us helping and supporting each other in all areas,” says Warnick, who especially appreciated the group dynamic when she lost her husband to cancer in 2013.

“When people are moving together, there’s this power of communitas, and you become bigger than you are as an individual,” says Elaine O’Brien, who has a master’s in applied positive psychology and is Warnick’s instructor. “The connection lifts you up more, and then it perpetuates that positive movement.”

Even if you’re not the class-taking type, you can still bring the power of community to your exercise life. Share your fitness goals with a friend and celebrate your mutual achievements. Encourage the neighborhood kids to play a game of kickball with you. Run a race for charity. “As we say in Life Reimagined, ‘isolation is fatal,’” says Whelan. Making your exercise life about something more than your own immediate goals will inspire you—and those around you.

None of which is to say that you’ll never be miserable during a workout or that you should ignore it when you’re truly exhausted—and push through the pain. (No, no and no.) But by shifting your mental perspective and applying a more positive, emotional approach to your exercise regimen, you’ll gain a deeper satisfaction from movement. And that, in turn, will make every aspect of your life much more fulfilling.