Exercise is good for the body, mind and soul, especially if you do it regularly and at a level beyond your comfort zone. Yet far too many people join a gym or start a sport – and call it a day almost before the new Lycra's been through the wash.
Such behaviour is common. Yet psychiatrists now believe that making excuses for not turning up to the gym is deeply unhealthy.
"Behavioural activation" (BA), a new form of cognitive behavioural therapy, is based on the principle that an active lifestyle promotes more robust mental as well as physical health – and therapists have borrowed from the strategies of the fitness industry to ensure that people don't just start exercise – they stick at it as well.
"We are realising that people are far more likely to stay with an activity if it matches their personality," says David Veale, a psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in north London In his new book, Manage Your Mood (Robinson, £12.99), a consumer handbook on BA. Veale's exercise guru is Jim Gavin, Professor of Applied Human Sciences at Concordia University in Montreal and a pioneer of lifestyle fitness coaching.
"Finding our perfect personal fitness pursuit will not only help people with health and fitness, it will also help us to grow personally," Gavin says. Many of his clients "transform their lives by finding a fitness pursuit they love and therefore stick with".
Christa Nicola, a personal trainer at the South Kensington coaching studio Bodyism, says people often tell her that she's "lucky" to like sport. "Luck has nothing to do with it. I had to try many different activities to find sports that I love."
The key to loving exercise, it seems, is to know yourself. Study these personality traits – they are the ones, according to Gavin, that most affect our ability to persist in exercise. Is your strongest trait sociability, spontaneity, aggression or competitiveness? Are you internally or externally motivated, focused or unfocused, risk-seeking or risk-avoiding?
At the most obvious, Gavin says: "Go for tennis if you're a social butterfly rather than weight training. If you're shy, you're more likely to be successful with yoga than racquet sports." So take the test – it could change your life.
What are you like? Find your character profile
Tick the boxes that apply to you
I love to be with people, to do things together.
I prefer doing things alone and find social interactions tiring.
Sociable........... [ ]
Insociable......... [ ]
In between........ [ ]
I like doing things on the spur of the moment. I tire easily from routines.
I like to plan and to feel in control. I enjoy routines. I don't like surprises.
Spontaneous...... [ ]
Controlled........... [ ]
In between.......... [ ]
I am 100 per cent self-motivated. I don't rely on others for support.
I need support to do hard things. Self-reward and encouragement help me stay committed.
Internally motivated......... [ ]
Externally motivated........ [ ]
In between.................. .... [ ]
I am a forceful, assertive person. I go after what I want and make sure my needs are met.
I am easy-going and may even be passive about meeting my needs. I dislike confrontation.
Aggressive......... [ ]
Easy-going......... [ ]
In between.......... [ ]
I enjoy competitive games. I perform better when I compete.
I avoid competitive situations. Competing makes me uncomfortable.
Competitive.............. [ ]
Non-competitive....... [ ]
In between............... [ ]
It's easy for me to concentrate. I enjoy getting absorbed in what I am doing.
I am easily distracted. My mind wanders. I have difficulty staying with the same task.
Focused............ [ ]
Unfocused......... [ ]
In between......... [ ]
Attitude to danger
I am a thrill-seeker. I love adventure.
I would rather be safe than sorry, even if that means not doing things that appeal to me.
Thrill-seeking...... [ ]
Cautious............. [ ]
In between.......... [ ]
Sociable: You talk to shop assistants and neighbours on the street. You'd rather watch a movie with friends than sit at home and watch one alone. Team sports or activities such as golf and squash are likely to appeal to you. Pick an exercise class such as aerobics, spinning or step if you also need an external motivation. If your chosen sport is not a team one, add a social component, suggests David Veale: "Choose places and times to exercise where there will be other people who are actively involved in exercise." The loneliness of the long-distance runner, for instance, doesn't exist if you run with a friend and use the time (once you've got up to scratch on fitness) to catch up on gossip or put the world to rights.
Unsociable: Those of a more solitary inclination find that t'ai chi in the park, swimming or long walks are good. With plenty of internal motivation, you can compete with yourself to go that extra half-mile.
Spontaneous: Spontaneous people generally like sports that are fast-moving so that they don't have time to think or get bored. Most team or racquet sports are perfect for "do now, think later" people: " Choose a game such as squash if you also have plenty of red-blooded aggression and a need to compete," Veale suggests. A good trainer helps spontaneity-lovers avoid routine by taking them through several different activities in a single session, Christa Nicola says: sprinting, stretching and then treadmill, for instance, without time to get bored in between. Do it yourself by organising different activities – biking, ice skating and trekking with friends.
Controlled: Controlled people will enjoy all kinds of dancing as well as t'ai chi, yoga, weight training and especially Pilates. " Pilates is all about holding postures, and is an excellent class for people who are helped by and enjoy a feeling of control," Nicola says. Core control, which is the central teaching of Pilates, improves performance in most other activities.
Internally motivated: People who are internally motivated should in theory have the least problem in taking exercise, whether they opt for running, weight training, cycling, swimming or t'ai chi. That only works, however, if people are self-motivated to exercise. "If they are not, it can be difficult to get them moving," Nicola says. "You somehow have to find a way to challenge them to give something a go." Self-motivators without a coach may have to rely on a devoted friend to kick ass.
Externally motivated: Classes at a gym are ideal for people who need to be externally motivated. "You need to have something booked and paid for or there's a chance you won't show up, whether it's a tennis court, a martial-arts class or a skiing holiday," Nicola says. Don't forget the power of music – you'll pump iron more easily if you join a class where rock music is blasting your eardrums. And you'll certainly cycle faster in a spinning class than riding your bike down a country lane.
Aggression: You like to take charge instead of following a leader, whether at work, home or play. When you get bad service in a store or restaurant, you ask for the manager. You'll also speak up immediately when an issue arises in a relationship, instead of waiting for the other person to bring it up. You'll do well in most racquet and team sports – especially rugby. Lifting weights will suit you if you also like being in control and are focused. Martial arts will be pure joy – although "almost everyone enjoys being given permission to throw a few punches," Nicola says. For those whose aggression could do with being muted, exercise might help – but only in the long term. "You won't get someone to be less aggressive by encouraging them to do t'ai chi or yoga," Gavin says. "It will be too contrary to his or her style. They need to gradually shape new behaviours and have to be strongly motivated to change."
Easy-going: In the same way, martial-arts classes may help to give the timid a more forceful streak – but they could also work the other way and put them off exercise. Dancing, golf and cycling all require a mix of assertiveness and civility – while walking, yoga and t'ai chi are ideal for those easy about being alone.
Competitive: If you play a game primarily to win rather than for enjoyment, shout at the TV screen and get upset if your team doesn't win, you'll do well at most team and racquet sports or any kind of group training. Anything you can potentially win will bring out your best side – and that includes golf, martial arts, running, swimming and cycling. And in every other activity, you can always compete with yourself. But try to maintain moderation, Veale says: "Setting goals can help you increase the frequency or duration of your activity. But be realistic and recognise that many activities are just there to be enjoyed in their own right, he says.
Non-competitive: For the extremely non-competitive, memories of school sports days might mean that you come out in a rash at the thought of participating in a sporting activity. But plenty of activities specifically discourage competition: t'ai chi and yoga, walking, skating and dancing can all be both enjoyable and challenging without you having to set yourself against the world.
Focused: You assiduously make your way through a website or magazine, painstakingly poring over every word rather than jumping between articles. You sit still at movies without fidgeting in your chair, and your friends say you're a great listener. You'll have no problem focusing on the ball in tennis or squash or learning complicated dance or t'ai chi moves – and provided you have a competitive edge, you should thoroughly enjoy team sports and martial arts.
Unfocused: For the less focused, find an activity where you're free to let your attention wander as it will: walking is ideal as you don't have to think about the activity and instead can spend your time looking at scenery and being sociable. Swimming, running and golf can also work for those with moderate focus.
Attitude to danger
There's a huge divide between those who actively seek thrills – whether it's in rock climbing, mountain biking or downhill skiing – and those who simply can't see the point. At one extreme, those wishing to avoid risk should thoroughly enjoy walking, t'ai chi, yoga and cardio conditioning at the gym. Being willing to take risks is an important characteristic in most team and racquet sports – and for some of us, simply showing up to try out a new activity involves a certain amount of risk-taking. Nicola says risk-taking is all about getting in touch with being a child again. "As you get older, you get more scared because you learn about the consequences of doing dangerous things. It's really great to behave like a child and really enjoy flying down a hill on a bike again – even better, down a mountain," she says.Reuse content