The way you define your identity has a major impact on how you behave. How can you make “exerciser” a core part of your identity, especially if you haven’t been physically active for long?
I posed this question to a half-dozen experts from various backgrounds, including fitness, marketing and image consulting. Here are their tips—along with insights gleaned from psychological research.
1. Think like a doer.
When motivating yourself to exercise, the tendency is to use a verb to describe what you plan to do (cycle, swim, go to the gym). However, research suggests that you may be more likely to actually engage in the activity if you use a noun to describe who you are (cyclist, swimmer, gym-goer). In other words, rather than telling yourself “I will run,” tell yourself “I am a runner.”
This strategy is based on what’s known as the self-as-doer theory of behavior. The theory states that the more closely you identify with a role, the more likely you are to take part in activities related to it.
In a study by Amanda Brouwer, Ph.D., of Winona State University, researchers randomly assigned 124 women to an identity statement group, a nutrition education group, or a control group. Those in the identity statement group first turned their personal eating goals (e.g., eating more veggies) into nouns with the “-er” suffix (e.g., veggie eater). The researchers then asked them to think of themselves in that light. Over the six-week study, women in the identity statement group maintained healthy eating habits. In contrast, women in the other groups actually ate less healthfully as time went by. It seems likely that making identity statements can have similar benefits for helping you stick with your fitness goals.
2. Create word of mouth.
Don’t just tell yourself that you’re a jogger, tennis player, or yoga practitioner. Describe yourself that way to other people, too. By establishing your credibility as an exerciser with others, you reinforce this identity for yourself.
At the same time, you’re building a network that provides support and accountability. When Mitzi Reaugh began running recently, she didn’t hesitate to talk up her new interest. “I asked my friends and colleagues who run for tips on where to go, what time of day to go, etc.,” says Reaugh, CEO and co-founder of the lifestyle expert marketplace GoodLooks.me. “It was helpful to hear their experiences. Also, the friends would then follow up by asking about my latest run. That accountability was key.”
3. Gear up for success.
Put your money where your mouth is. To the extent that your budget allows, another way to solidify your identity as an exerciser is by buying role-related products, says Vassilis Dalakas, Ph.D., professor of marketing at California State University San Marcos. “[A] Fitbit is a product associated with people who are active, so owning one will increase my perception of myself as a person who is active and likes to exercise,” says Dalakas. “Similarly, if my running shoes are three years old, it’s hard for me to convince myself I am a runner. But getting rid of them and buying a new pair is more likely to convince me (and others) that running is an important part of who I am.”
Don’t go overboard, but shelling out a little of your hard-earned money on a fitness product may help consolidate the idea that this is a priority for you.
4. Dress the part.
Dressing in fitness attire also helps you brand yourself as an exerciser. “Wear your workout clothes to and from the gym, and stop at the grocery store, bank or dry cleaners on the way,” suggests Marian Rothschild, a personal image consultant and author of Look Good Now and Always. “Other people will see you and identify you as a person who regularly works out.”
Also, wearing clothes that symbolize athleticism may make you think of yourself as more athletic. Researchers Hajo Adam, Ph.D., and Adam Galinsky, Ph.D., coined the term enclothed cognition to describe the influence that clothing can exert on your state of mind. In one study, the team showed that wearing a white coat they described as a doctor’s coat actually made people more attentive. In contrast, just seeing the coat or wearing it but believing it belonged to a painter didn’t have the same effect. In much the same way, slipping into yoga pants, hiking shorts or a cycling jersey may help you perceive yourself as stronger and fitter.
5. Stage the scene.
Environmental props are another way to reinforce your identity as an exerciser. A water bottle on the kitchen counter or yoga mat in the corner serves as a silent reminder of your last (or next) exercise session.
Along the same lines, “a fitness magazine on your coffee table can promote a healthy lifestyle,” says Franklin Antoian, a certified personal trainer and founder of iBodyFit.com. “It’s always within reach and almost calling you to read it, even if only for a few minutes to learn a quick tip.” Aside from what’s inside the periodicals, designers arrange magazine covers to be attention-grabbing, so they’re high-impact visual cues, and the novelty of new issues keeps them from losing their impact over time.
6. Post, tweet, share.
Put all that time you spend on social media to constructive use. “Post regularly on social media about how great it felt to begin your day with a five-mile run, a yoga class, or a bike ride to the next town over,” says Rothschild. “If possible, include a photo or short video. You’ll be known for your love of fitness and maybe even get invited to join group activities, runs, or rides.”
Play an active role in Facebook groups or other online communities devoted to your favorite activity. Leave comments on fitness blogs, or start one of your own. By joining a community of exercisers, you become one of them—not only in their estimation, but also in your own.
7. Mix business and pleasure.
To underscore how important exercise is to you, consider making it part of your professional identity, even if you don’t work in the fitness field. As an example, I recently added the phrase “avid walker” to my Twitter profile. For anyone who scans my tweets or reads my blog, the fact that I love walking for fitness and inspiration is no secret. Yet it still felt like a meaningful move.
Nickie Robinson, a publicist and president of GoodGirlPR, has taken the approach a step further. “After having a baby, losing the baby weight was quite difficult,” she says. “I decided that if I started to brand myself as #fitpublicist, I would have more of an incentive to be consistent with my workouts. Why? People are paying attention.” Although Robinson had never exercised consistently as an adult, dance workouts and weight training are now regular parts of her routine. That’s not surprising: When you add “exerciser” to your identity at work as well as at home, you double your opportunities for self-persuasion.
8. Become a racer.
Yes, it's just another “-er” word, but it’s an extra-powerful one. Training for a race is a bold declaration that you’re not only getting off the couch, you’re actively reaching toward a goal.
“If you are new to running and want to get a solid start, run a 5K race,” advises Martise Moore, a running coach and founder of GreenRunner. “At 3.1 miles, a 5K is one of the shortest road races out there, but it’s long enough to be a real challenge and set you up for active achievement.”
Afterward, share photos of the event on social media. Wear your event T-shirt around town, and talk about how much fun it was. Let others know you’re the kind of committed exerciser who trains for and participates in races, and you’ll start to believe it yourself.
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