Imagine this. You and your best friend have always been self-confessed couch potatoes. But recently your best friend decided to do the Couch to 5k and successfully completed it. Despite her encouraging you to do it, you couldn’t seem to find the motivation. Three months later, she’s now enjoying being able to run 5k, and you haven’t even got started. Does your friend’s achievement help you find inspiration to do it too? Or is seeing her success just making you feel worse about yourself?
In this blog, I’ll consider how to find positive inspiration from active people, and avoid that (all too common) tendency to let others’ success make us feel bad about ourselves.
Finding inspiration during lockdown
Each morning Truman greets many ordinary people as he passes on his journey to ordinary work. What makes this so believable to viewers is the habitual nature of his daily life, which many of us can relate to (or could – before 2020). Then one day, Truman learns his entire world is a fictional creation, and this ordinary existence is thrown into disarray.
Through this time, I have begun to build a mental catalogue of “active people who inspire me”, which I hope to share with you through my new inspiring stories page. In these stories I talk to many of these “local heroes” to find out what has inspired them to be active, what movement means to them and tips they have for others.
Turning negative comparisons into positive inspiration
There are people in my life I look at and think “I’d like to be as strong as her” or “I’d like to be that active when I’m her age”. Some of these individuals I’ve been saying hi to for years as I pass them on my bike. Others I’ve met at my local Parkrun. Others still I am yet to meet in person. But it’s clear movement is important for these individuals, and you can’t help but be inspired when you see them.
Too often, we find ourselves slipping into negative social comparisons with others. “She’s so much slimmer than me” or “he’s so much faster than me”. “I could never be like that therefore I’m less worthwhile (and might as well give up trying)”. Or perhaps we take it further still – making assumptions that others are looking at us, and judging what we look like or how we do things. This can be particularly challenging when you first start to exercise, when it feels like everyone else is fitter, slimmer and knows what they’re doing.
This is how Kevin Sartorius felt when he embarked on his weight loss journey back in 2008. Kevin is one of the first of my series of inspiring stories (read Kevin’s full story here). His remarkable tale shows how changing the way you look at things can enhance your motivation to move. Kevin talks of how he used to think people were judging him, but he soon realised this wasn’t the case at all. They were simply focusing on their run, daydreaming, or trying to smile and encourage. Kevin reframed his negative feelings into inspiration. Instead of comparing himself against others, he used what he saw in others as inspiration. He watched how they were doing it and used this to fuel the belief that he could do the same.
Role models as inspiration
It was one of the world’s most eminent psychologists, Albert Bandura, who conceived the notion that we learn vicariously from watching others. If we see someone successfully change their eating and activity behaviours, this will help us believe we can do it too. If we see someone take up running who has never ran before, this will give us confidence we can also learn to run.
The “you go first” phenomenon is an example of this notion at play. I remember experiencing this feeling during a “mud obstacle run” a few years’ back. Standing in front of a particularly daunting obstacle (if I remember correctly this was a man-made adult climbing frame that required me to get up, through, over, and down) my initial thoughts were “not sure how I’m going to get over that”. But as I stood in line and watched other women similar to me successfully navigate the obstacle I began to believe I could also do it. And I did.
Sandra, 73, is another great role model for movement (read Sandra’s full story here). Physical activity is important for healthy ageing, and Sandra’s “can do” attitude shows it is possible to incorporate movement into everyday life in a way that is varied and enjoyable. Movement can help keep you functionally independent, prevent falls and keep you socially connected. And the great thing is every little bit of movement counts.
3 tips to help find inspiration from others
We all slip into negative thought patterns from time to time, but once we are conscious of these we can begin to change. Try the following tips to help you find positive inspiration from others.
1. Think of active people you know who inspire you
What are their strengths/characteristics? What do they do to stay active? Have they always been this way or have they gradually changed their activity levels (and how)? If you don’t know the answers to these questions why not try asking the individual themselves – most active individuals will be happy to share their experiences to help others (and if they’re not, perhaps it’s time to move them from your inspirational people list!).
If you find yourself getting feelings of envy whilst doing this, notice this is happening but then don’t let the feelings drag you down. Instead, focus on thinking “what can I learn from this individual to help me achieve my own goals?”
2. Focus on self-improvement rather than comparison with others
The way we become our best selves (physically and psychologically) is through focusing on what is important to us. By improving our own skills and fitness, not on trying to beat others (see my blog on healthy motivation). And if you’re in a competitive sport setting, this focus on yourself can actually lead to better performance. I once heard Chris Boardman (Former British Cyclist and Olympic gold medalist) speak about how he achieved his success. He simply said “I focused on being the best I could be”. Never was the focus on beating the other athletes.
Next time you enter that exercise class and start comparing yourself with others, notice this and try and bring your focus back to yourself. Where are your current skill and fitness levels and how you can build on these? If you want proof that you’re progressing, think back to the first time you did that activity. Notice how different you were then, and give yourself a pat on the back for all you’ve achieved.
3. Start gradually and take small steps
Remember everyone has a different starting point. It is important to be realistic in your approach to becoming more active. If you’re reading Kevin’s or Sandra’s story and it feels a long way off for you now, think instead about what you could learn from their approach. Then apply it to your own situation.
For example, if you’re also in your 70s but do very little movement at the moment, take inspiration from Sandra’s story that age needn’t be a barrier to physical activity. But it wouldn’t be realistic (or healthy) to try and be as active as Sandra straight away. Instead start with some gentle activity such as a 5-minute walk, or getting up out of your chair more times in the day. If you suffer with health problems or arthritis, it is advisable to speak with your GP for guidance. They may be able to signpost you to local physical activity organisations for support (if you’re Liverpool-based, check out Healthiness, a great organization who provide low-impact physical activity classes and social opportunities for older adults).
Getting started – where to find help
Perhaps reading this you still have those nagging doubts in your mind. You might be in a different position from Kevin or from Sandra. You might feel that your health problems don’t allow you to achieve the kind of feats they have. This is a perfectly valid way to feel, and getting support from others might help you get started. The following organisations provide some great support for people of different ages, health situations and abilities to become more active:
- MIND – tips and guidance for physical activity and mental health
- Her Spirit – free app and online community to support women to become more active
- Activity Alliance – guidance for getting active if you have a physical disability
- Be Strong – healthy approach to weight loss and supportive online community (plus face-to-face sessions in Blackburn with Darwen).
To find out what’s available in your local area, a good starting point is to contact your GP or your local council sports development team.
If you’re new to physical activity and have a health condition, it is important to speak with your GP for advice regarding safe exercise.
As I’ve spent most of my career writing academic research papers, I’m pretty new to blogging and have been learning loads from Hubspot bloggers. I’d love to hear your feedback, so please comment below, ask further questions and join the conversation – is comparing yourself with others something you struggle with, and do you have other ideas for finding inspiration from others?
Dr Paula Watson is a HCPC-registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, Director of Made Up to Move Ltd and part-time lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.
Made Up to Move offers affordable psychology services to help people with the mental aspects of exercise and physical activity. If you’d like further support in understanding and changing your own relationship with movement, click here for details of the 1-to-1 support available.