Want To Exercise Better? You Might Want To Think About Death

The finessing of exercise routines and athletic performance is a matter of great interest to scientists, particularly because regular exercise keeps showing such consistent good returns for the human body and mind: Harvard Health, summing up the studies in 2013, found that regular exercise helps cardiovascular disease, cell heath, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol levels, among other benefits. But we're increasingly discovering that a huge part of performance is mental, and that there are different ways of achieving peak results using your brain. This is something elite athletes have known for a long time: Paavo Nurmi, the multi-medal winning Finnish long distance running legend, once famously said "Mind is everything. Muscles — pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind."

The relationship between psychology and exercise has accumulated a bunch of different scientific studies. Scientific American, for instance, reported that studies on the tie between music and good workouts go back to 1911, and it's now firmly accepted that music helps our performance. It also seems to go both ways; the American Psychological Association reported in 2011 on an increasing arsenal of research indicating that exercise regimes should be part of psychological treatments (many people who experience depression, for instance, are encouraged to exercise).

But two new studies released this week indicate that there are more depths to the link between thought and exercise practice than we previously thought — and they reveal a fair bit about human nature.

Exercise Tip #1: Remind Yourself Of Your Mortality

In one of the strangest athletic studies possibly ever done, another new bit of advice out of the University of Arizona recommends that if you want to really outstrip your personal best on the court, in the pool, or elsewhere, you should spend some time thinking about death. No, really.

The study, which will shortly be published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology , experimented on a selection of college-student males who regularly play basketball, but aren't on elite teams. They played two games of one-on-one, and between the two were asked a series of questions, some on basketball, some on death. (Sample questions included "Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you," which may have thoroughly freaked the participants out.) After some time, which meant they likely were not consciously thinking about death any more, they played another game, and those who'd been given the death questions did better and took more risks than the ones asked more innocuous questions. Subjects also played games against somebody with a plain shirt or a shirt with a giant skull on it; those against the "skull" opponent did better, too.

One suspects, unscientifically, that part of the reason their performance improves was that they were vaguely terrified of the entire situation, and therefore had their blood pumping. The scientists in charge, though, think it's because those subjects who were faced with their own mortality wanted, unconsciously, to fight against it by attempting to raise their own performance level and investing meaning in their achievement. They were, in other words, terrorized into doing better by the inevitability of their own death. Charming.

Exercise Tip #2: Get Yourself Some Competition And Post To Social Media

In other exercise-tip-news, it turns out that we're all expertly motivated by a bit of competitive spirit, and not just individually: competing as a group against others appears to massively raise our exercise performances and help us achieve athletic goals. The new information comes courtesy of a study mounted among students at the University of Pennsylvania, designed to see whether social media could be used to instigate healthy competition between exercising groups.

The idea of a "workout buddy," somebody to exercise alongside and use as a competitive "push," is well-ingrained in sport science, but this study went beyond that established wisdom. The UPenn scientists recruited 790 graduate students and put them in an 11-week exercise program of exercise classes and nutritional information, with the chance to win cash prizes and other stuff at the finish. The students, unbeknownst to them, were divided into groups of six, all with different approaches. Some were in "competitive" groups, who could use the social media of the exercise program to check on the classes other people were doing, see how their attendance stacked up, and earn prizes based on how many they went to. (These groups were also split into two: team competition and individual competition.) Some were in "supportive" groups, which had no information about how other people were performing, but could chat online and cheer each there on. And then there were control groups, which had access to neither thing.

The competitive groups, both individual and team, outstripped the performance of everybody. Completely. "Attendance numbers were 90% higher," reported the scientists with some astonishment. "Social comparison was more effective for increasing physical activity than social support and its effects did not depend on individual or team incentives." When giving their results to the media, they explained that supportive groups actually "draw attention to members who are less active, which can create a downward spiral of participation," while competitive groups focused on the highest-performing members and encouraged everybody to get to that level. Obviously, there are some limitations to this study: the kind of people who'll sign up to an intensive 11-week fitness program on a university campus likely already have some fitness level, and might be more innately competitive.

So that's the current summary of new exercise science: to push yourself as hard as you can, get yourself some people to compete against, record your challenges on social media, and periodically remind yourself that you're going to die. The human mind is an exceptionally weird place. Have a good time at the gym?

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