Stuck in a cycle of dieting and training fits and starts? Unable to shake off bad habits and sustain a lean and healthy physique? You might be forgiven for thinking that change will always elude you. That this is the yo-yo life your DNA has granted you
Or is it?
I’m here to tell you that change is possible for everyone – indeed, that you can program your mind to achieve your fitness and nutritional goals. The key lies in what you allow into your unconscious.
“Where you put your attention and energy, becomes real in your life and monopolizes your mind” – Tom Bilyeu
Be Conscious Of What You Allow Into Your Unconscious Mind
The part of your brain that leaps to conclusions is called the adaptive unconscious. It’s what you do instinctively, through habit.
It turns out that 90% of information goes through the unconscious brain.
You filter out a lot of this information through your senses. The filter that allows through that 10% of information is known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) (1). It stops you from becoming overwhelmed by acting as the gatekeeper to what information is allowed into your unconscious mind. Essentially, it makes life more simple.
The information that you allow in is affecting and changing your unconscious mind, forming the basis of your instincts and habits. Remember how you learnt to ride a bike and have never forgotten – that’s due to the unconscious programming that took place in your mind. The habit was stored. It follows that being aware of your environment and being (consciously) aware of what you allow into your mind is likely to be the key to lasting habit change.
Remember when you bought that car, thinking what a unique bit of machinery you’d purchased. Then suddenly you saw it everywhere you went?
That’s because the car became a priority for the brain. Your mind allowed the information around that car to become consciously present, via the RAS. It created awareness.
Changing what is important to you changes the information which filters into your brain.
“Where Your Attention Goes, Energy Flows and Results Show.” – T. Harv Eker
Your snap reactions and first instincts can be educated and controlled. The key for this is focus. Focus is the super skill that enables you to hone in on one particular task to the exclusion of all other things.
By learning to focus, you can manipulate and change instinctive (unconscious) behaviours that are holding you back – habits in other words.
In neuroscience, the term used is neuroplasticity, which refers to the capacity of the brain to change (2). For example, a person who has suffered a stroke and lost use of the left arm, can train their brain to bring back functioning to that arm, by tying down the right arm to decrease movement options. This is a re-wiring of the brain via neuroplasticity. The same concept applies to changing your default habits.
In addition to focus, repetition is key. The more often you do something, the more you are creating an unconscious habit. As with the bike-riding analogy, with sufficient focus and repetition, at some point you’ll do enough to make the association permanent.
5 Methods To Rewire Your Brain For Habit Change
1. Improve focus on what you are trying to improve
If you want to effect change, you have to focus on the things that will lead to that outcome, and exclude a lot of other information.
How often do you check your phone while training, hence splitting your focus? Something to consider.
Program hopping is another surefire way to dilute focus away from achieving your training goals. The more random variety in your training, the less you are working towards a specific objective. And the less you can implement progressive overload, the most important factor for building strength and muscle.
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. It’s how you learnt your times tables, it’s how you learnt to swim and it’s how you develop habits.
Changing your exercise and nutritional habits may seem daunting, even unobtainable at first, but if you repeat the same actions on a regular basis, whether it be reps in the gym or food choices at home, they will become more comfortable and familiar and in time learnt behaviours that you won’t forget – just like those times tables.
3. State of mind
How you get those reps in (your state of mind) also matters.
Neuroplasticity is experience-driven. Mood matters, and is automatically hard-wired to learning.
Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment. If you’re in a bad mood or stressed every time you go to exercise, over time you are likely to perceive your training experience as negative, even if you are making progress.
Make sure your coach is providing you with a positive experience in and around your training sessions. If you’re struggling to get motivated, start with exercises that feel good to you. You can teach your brain to train in a good state, before then progressing further.
4. Find a coach to give you a framework for success
Information and ideas about nutrition and training has never been more accessible – we have vast arrays of resources available at our fingertips. But sifting through that information and understanding what’s relevant to you, what’s accurate and what isn’t, can feel overwhelming and frustrating.g (3). You read one article, it says x you read another it says y – how do you know what to do?
Taking advice from the right coach and following a diet and training structure adapted to your individual needs is critical. Without that advice the plethora of information now available about nutrition and training can feel impossible to navigate and often stunts progress.
But with the right framework in place, you will develop a fluid routine which will make weight loss and training gains much easier.
5. Motivation: be mindful of what matters to you
Stay focussed on the why. A motivated state is better at allowing information into the RAS.
Why do you want to get fit?
Is it to feel more confident? To move through life with health and agility? To increase wellbeing? To improve sports or running performance?
Whatever the motivating factor behind your goal may be, keep reminding yourself of it. It will make positive lifestyle choices easier.
Your current instinctual habits are the result of a lifetime of unconscious programming, through a series of choices made. Your brain has the capacity to change. The more often you do something, the more you are shaping a new unconscious habit. Use the super skill of focus to transform your life.
About the author
After years juggling a senior banking career with my passion for fitness, I left finance to help busy professionals transform their bodies inside and out. As an online coach, I use a science-based approach to get you the lean, healthy physique you deserve.
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- Textbook of Clinical Neurology (Third Edition), 2007
- Pascual-Leone, A., Freitas, C., Oberman, L., Horvath, J. C., Halko, M., Eldaief, M., … Rotenberg, A. (2011). Characterizing brain cortical plasticity and network dynamics across the age-span in health and disease with TMS-EEG and TMS-fMRI. Brain Topography, 24(3–4), 302–315.
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell