Do you work out — or are you an athlete? (Photo: Boone Rodriguez/Corbis)
What does it take to call yourself an athlete? Most people think it starts with doing something athletic — going to the gym three times a week, joining CrossFit, or training for a 10K. And it’s surely true that acting a certain way — like a runner, yogi, or cyclist — begets thinking of yourself in that fashion (if only to justify the ridiculous amount of Spandex you find yourself wearing on a near-daily basis).
But the most recent research from the field of sport psychology suggests the opposite is also true:
If you want to run more, think of yourself as a runner.
If you want to swim more, call yourself a swimmer.
If you want to lift weights … Well, you get the point.
“Many people start with doing a behavior, like going to the gym, and then assume they will have the benefits of working out, and then will see themselves as athletes,” Penny Levin, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in fitness and exercise, tells Yahoo Health. Levin and other experts suggest a different order: Call yourself an athlete, then do it. “If I identify myself as a runner, I am much more likely to do the things that runners do, and then will have the benefits of running,” says Levin, who was not involved in the new study.
The new research from the University of Manitoba underscores this idea. In the study, 311 undergraduate students answered questions about their workout habits and exercise identity. They also reported what researchers call “self-regulatory efficacy,” which is “one’s confidence in their ability to manage their exercise — to plan it, schedule it, stick to it when barriers arise, etc.,” explains study author Shaelyn Strachan, PhD.
The findings: Over the eight-week study, students who had a stronger exercise-related identity were more likely to work out and do so more consistently.
In addition, the study found, the relationship between identity and exercise was influenced by self-efficacy. Translation: “When people see themselves as exercisers, they are more confident to manage their exercise — to overcome barriers, schedule, and plan — which in turn is related to their success in being active,” Strachan tells Yahoo Health. And people with more confidence (self-efficacy) have the greatest success.
An athletic identity influences much more than your motivation to work out, Levin says. It also involves having important fitness-related goals, needing to do the activity to feel good about yourself, your interaction and friendship with other athletes, and being upset when you can’t do your sport. “You also believe that your sport is an important part of life,” Levin says. “You choose to spend time on that above other areas of your life, like working extra hours.”
Of course, it’s not as simple as just waking up and thinking, “I’m an athlete.” Strachan’s research shows that your self-efficacy, or confidence, significantly influences how much the adoption of this identity affects what you do. “[Self-efficacy] is an important individual-level variable influencing people’s exercise behavior, because exercise is a complex behavior,” she says. “So people who are more able to plan out their exercise in their busy schedules, adjust their plans when problems arise, stick to their plans for exercise, etc., are going to be more likely to exercise than those who are less confident in this domain.”
So how do you boost your confidence? “It’s pretty simple,” Levin says. “You need to see yourself set and achieve goals.” Start with clear and realistic objectives, like going to the gym and lifting weights for 30 minutes twice a week. It also helps to surround yourself with positive, like-minded people and think of yourself as part of that group. Finally, Levin adds, be aware of your self-talk and speak to yourself as an athlete. For example, rather than, “This is tough and I hate doing it,” think something like, “This is hard, but it’s what I need to do to get better.”