Hmm… what workout should I do today? Cycling? Tennis? Jogging? CrossFit? You definitely have many options to choose from with all the different fitness trends.
If this your typical workout query, then take heed. Experts say that when you’re choosing among A, B, C, and D, you’re rather likely to choose E—nothing at all.
The reason? Decision making is a complex process for our inner minds, more so than we realize. And here we thought more fitness options would be better! And actually, they are, to an extent—having variety is key to a well-rounded workout and preventing exercise boredom.
But too much of a good thing can backfire. The more choices you have, the more potential there is for making the wrong choice. When presented with a series of options, the brain automatically begins scanning the details and processing the pros and cons—especially the cons. The more possible wrong choices we can make, the more it stresses us out. And stress spells disaster for a workout regimen.
Why We Panic Over (Seemingly) Small Choices
An article in The Economist, called “The Tyranny of Choice”, explored how our option-hungry culture might be doing us fewer favors than we think. At a certain point, choice no longer liberates but debilitates. Thanks to an instinctual response called “loss aversion,” decision-making can cause panic, confusion and, yes, indecision.
“Choice is rarely based on a simple rational decision with a predictable outcome,” the author says. For the mind, the decision-making process is complex and the stakes are high. If you have too many sports in your fitness arsenal, running through your options might feel, in itself, like a workout. Next thing you know, you’re in doubt or burned out. If you can’t be sure of a course of action, why choose one at all?
Perhaps the evidence of this kind of choice/information burnout is right in front of us. Over the last four years, exercise information, scientific discoveries and new workout options (boinging?) have amassed exponentially. But are people exercising more? No.
I could go to the gym, but then I’d have to fix my hair again. But at least it would be warmer than jogging at the park. Or I could do a Bodyrock workout and burn a bunch of calories—but I just ate, and anyway, I’ll never be able to look like those girls.
I don’t know if this is the typical dialogue involved in most people’s workout-of-the-day choices. But it’s certainly mine.
So how can we ratchet our choices down to a good level?
It starts by acknowledging that there is no one perfect exercise choice. And any workout is better than no workout. If we start to get caught up in which workout burns the most calories or produces the most Victoria Secret model abs, it’s time to step back. And when it comes to published studies and fitness articles, don’t put too much stock into them—statistically, the difference between methods may be no more than a hair. The media loves to proclaim it has found the one new, right, best answer. Don’t let their quest for ratings and click-throughs run you ragged.
When Autopilot is Actually Your Friend
The thing I think we’ve all learned about exercise is that it has to be automatic. No mental dialogue. No flip-flopping. No running through a catalog of fitness options. No ruminating, no doubt.
Actually, that’s what David Meine (creator of the IdealShape Brain Training program) says is one of the benefits of hypnosis for weight loss. It helps people focus their mind to the point that good habits – like exercise – happen on autopilot. It prevents the critical mind from getting in and messing around. You just do it. (Yes, Nike was on to something.)
By exercising on autopilot, I don’t mean ‘checking out’ while you’re exercising. Going through the motions isn’t going to do you favors. You still need to be fully present in what you’re doing. It’s the getting there part that has to be effortless.
This awareness of how our minds work (and over-work) is being applied in every industry. In the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, the authors added to a growing body of research that shows how people are more likely to achieve their wellness goals with default options. Funny, but true.
When a choice needs to be made, from retirement savings to health care, people are by and large better off with automatic enrollment than active choice. At the very least it gets the ball rolling and we’re then more likely to choose something else if we want.
How to Keep Your Exercise Regimen in Check
So before you go adding a fifth or sixth sport to your lineup, or choosing the gym with the multitude of class or equipment options, consider whether the choice buffet could actually backfire.
You don’t have to get stuck in a fitness rut, though. Trying new things is one secret to staying happy with your fitness regimen. Just don’t leave room for a last-minute choice. Hash it out beforehand. Put your gym bag in your car on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and schedule with a fitness buddy on Saturdays.
Or rotate your fitness passions by season, which I’ve found to be a good way to cross-train without getting overwhelmed.
You can conquer choice overload, and just about any other fitness conundrum, by making a plan.