Struggling to Get to the Gym? This Kind of Therapy Could Help
ACT teaches you to sync your habits with your goals.
Maybe you’ve tried everything, including bribing yourself (If you go to the gym, you can come home and watch The Bachelorette!) and guilting yourself (You spent so much on that membership—you have to go). But you just can't seem to get into a regular fitness routine.
It turns out sitting on a shrink's couch might be just the fitspo you need.
One of the newest buzzwords in self-improvement is ACT, a type of therapy designed to help you develop your "emotional agility." And that is key to achieving your goals, says Steven Hayes, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno: "Emotional agility affects how well you do in business, if you succeed in sports, and whether you stick to your diet and exercise regimen," he says.
ACT (short for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) involves a combination of mindfulness techniques and behavior change strategies that help you focus on what's important to you, and alter your behavior to support those values.
Preliminary research suggests it might be worth a try if you’re struggling to fit in more workouts. A small study published last year in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people who were asked to follow a walking program and were also counseled in ACT were nearly five times more likely to meet the activity goals than those who didn't receive counseling.
Another small 2015 study, in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, reported that after one ACT session, women were able to cycle at a high-intensity for longer. Moreover, they enjoyed the exercise more after they received the therapy. And a pilot study back in 2011 found that ACT helped women significantly boost their level of physical activity.
How does it work?
Typically, Hayes explains, psychology experts would tell you to do one of two things as you huff away on the treadmill: Distract yourself from the pain (this is where a rocking playlist comes in handy) or hyper-focus on your form and why you’re there.
But ACT may be even more powerful. Using mindfulness strategies, the therapy helps you come to terms with the barriers that keep you from exercising—and why working out doesn’t feel all that great, all the time. (They don't call it the dreadmill for nothing!)
You might identify beliefs and thoughts like, "I don't have energy for this," or "I’m not confident with my body." Then, you’d combat those thoughts with a hearty dose of self-compassion and self-kindness.
You might also learn tactics to break through your barriers called “defusion skills," says Hayes. For example, you know that nagging refrain in your mind, "I can't run another mile because it's too hard"? Say it in the voice of Donald Duck, and it suddenly feels a lot less powerful. If you’re ashamed of your body because you think it’s “flabby,” say flabby out loud fast for 30 seconds. “By the end, the word or phrase doesn’t mean much,” Hayes explains.
Final step: find your motivation. Goals are great—like running a marathon, or fitting into those jeans you've been hanging on to since college. But ACT pushes you to go deeper, and identify higher-level motivations, like wanting to be a positive role model for your kids, or wanting to dance the night away with your boyfriend.
Want to try ACT?
The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science offers a directory you can search to find an ACT therapist near you. Or you can go the DIY route and pick up Hayes' book, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life ($22; amazon.com).
In the meantime, whenever those intrusive "Can't do it, don't want to do it" thoughts start popping into you head pre-workout, be mindful of them. Then kick them to the curb, and focus on your true motivation. Don’t be surprised if you find a little more pep in your step.