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Having Trouble Sticking to an Exercise Routine?

Before you hang in the towel, take a personality test.

Going for an easy run in the neighborhood works with my personality type. You couldn't pay me to put a treadmill in my home.

I’ve been exercising regularly for the past three years, after I became an empty nester and my husband took a job out of town during the week.

No excuses, but it still wasn’t easy.

So what happens now that he’s back or when my children and family visit, especially over the holidays? Do I go for an early morning run or make breakfast and coffee for everyone?

And what about all the errands I’ve got to do on the weekends, which is also when I write and socialize and need extra sleep? Especially now, my exercise regimen could be one of the first things to go.

But it doesn’t. Here’s why.

I’ve read that if finishing a marathon is on your bucket list you’ll probably put in the work, finish the race, and never run again.

That could have been me. After finishing my first marathon, I started skipping exercise sessions and began to notice that I wasn’t getting the benefits of exercise that are so important to my health – both for now and for the long term – and for my performance at work and in my relationships.

For insight, I reached out to Chris Friesen, a Ph.D. clinical psychologist who specializes in sport and performance psychology and the author of Achieve. I told Chris about myself (I’m an extrovert) and my training up until that point, which had been highly structured. I told him after the marathon I wanted to try self-training and self-coaching and had stopped working with a trainer or a running coach or even a sports nutritionist, all critical members of my squad who got me across the finish line.

For people like me, Chris said, life just doesn’t feel right without the external stimulation of working with a team and training for a race.

On top of that, “to feel normal, you need goals, to know what’s next,” he said.

Chris uses the Five-Factor Model of personality, also known as the Big Five, in his practice as director of Friesen Sport & Performance Psychology in Ontario, Canada, to help his clients find the best strategies to achieve their personal goals critical to their athletic or business success.

Chris said the five traits are normally distributed within the population, with the distribution in a classic bell-shaped curve and with most people falling near the middle. However, many of us tend to fall either above or below the middle point, he said, and where we fall on each of the five personality dimensions has no relationship to where we fall on the others.

To achieve my fitness goals, Chris wanted me to have an awareness of where I am on the continuum. That way we could figure out what works for me and what doesn’t. 

Here’s what we found out.  

1. Negative emotions

I know these sound like something you don’t want to have, but, according to Chris, most professional and elite athletes are high in negative emotions, meaning they are susceptible to feeling anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, and sadness. People who are high in negative emotions tend to be cautious.

Many successful musicians, actors, and writers also tend to be high in negative emotions, because these emotions foster creativity and passion. It’s hard to write a gripping novel with characters who are anxious if you don’t have a lot of those feelings yourself, Chris said.

People who are high in negative emotions regardless of where they fall on the other four personality dimensions, Chris said, are prone to making prevention-focused goals. In other words, these are people who make goals to prevent bad things from happening. For example, you work out because you’re afraid if you don’t you’re going to die of a heart attack because your father had one at your age.

“If you’re high in negative emotions, to motivate yourself, you think of the negative things that will happen if you don’t reach your goal or take an action,” Chris said.

Not surprisingly, I am low in negative emotions and relatively cool under pressure. I experience anxiety or self-consciousness infrequently, and I’m not very creative or artistic.

2. Extroversion, or a person’s tolerance for external stimulation

Chris said you can think of an extroverted person’s brain as a car engine that’s naturally revving too low. In order to feel normal, the person would need to seek more external stimulation, whether it’s doing exercise or talking to people. In the psychology world, the trait is commonly known as “extraversion,” which I find interesting because I’m probably extra-extroverted anyway.

People who are more introverted, or who have a low tolerance for external stimulation, have a brain that’s revving high naturally, and too much external stimulation makes them feel overwhelmed, he said.

People like me who have a high tolerance for external stimulation will stick to an exercise routine if there’s a social or exciting aspect to it, such as working out at the gym or running on a busy trail or joining an Ironman or Tri club to train for a race.

People who have a low tolerance for external stimulation, like Chris, prefer to work out on their own. When they’re at the gym, they may gravitate to a quiet place within the training area or prefer a time when the club is less busy.

My first trainer used to start every session asking me if I’d had a chance to do my treadmill runs on the Woodway, a superior piece of equipment on the third floor of the gym as opposed to the regular treadmills on the main training floor.

“Just stop,” I finally said.

“It’s not going to happen.”

It’s literally impossible for me to run even half a mile on a treadmill in isolation no matter how great that machine is for my hips. I need to run on a treadmill surrounded by other people running on a treadmill.

Preferably next to me.

On both sides.

Chris said people who have my profile – low in negative emotions and high in extroversion – tend to make promotion-focused goals. This means the trick to getting ourselves motivated isn’t to think of all the bad things that can happen if we don’t reach our goals, but rather to think of all the good things that will happen when we do.

We’re less afraid to take risks and don’t typically sweat the small stuff. We come up with big goals with the possibility of big payoffs. The bad part is we tend to underestimate the risks and the hard work in achieving the goal.

3. Openness to experience

People (like me) who are high in openness are more willing to try new exercises or alternative health care options. If you’re low in openness, Chris said, you’ll prefer more traditional ways of doing exercises, and you might avoid using the latest great thing to track your workouts or you’ll wait before investing in a gadget or new app.

Because I’m low in negative emotions and high in openness, I tend to grab on to new trends. As a result little injuries can pile up, sidelining me from running or even swimming. My Washington, D.C., physical therapist Kevin McGuinness says this is the “Secret Squirrel Program,” where you combine a bunch of programs or ideas that are good on their own and think that by doing them all or taking little pieces of each you’re going to come up with something better than everyone else.

“Don’t be the squirrel,” he says.

4. Agreeableness, or your attitude toward others

On the high end (me), we’re trusting and reveal how we think and feel. (Kevin and my trainers and coaches know so much about me I’d have to kill them if I ever ran for public office.) We tend to be more cooperative than competitive with others and don’t have a killer instinct (except for the situation above). People who are low in agreeableness tend to be skeptical and not easily duped, they’re more guarded, more focused on their own challenges, more vocal about what they disagree with, and more competitive, Chris said.

I race against myself instead of against others, so big races are good for me. The downside is registering for big races and making big goals and becoming disappointed in my results, because remember people like me don’t think of the bad things that can happen if we don’t reach our goals.

5. Motivation & self-control

People who are high in this dimension (me) are ambitious, detail oriented, efficient, disciplined, and more deliberate. We’re great with weekly training schedules and a regimented training plan. Chris said if you’re low in this trait you’ll need a really big Why to get yourself to exercise. Writing out a list of reasons for exercising and keeping the list next to your alarm clock could be clutch.

What you need to worry about if you have my profile and you’re high in motivation and low in negative emotions, Chris said, is becoming fanatic about exercise, inviting overuse injuries and re-injuries, and failing to recover, or deload, properly.

At times Kevin has given me a lower body workout to do on my own no more than two times per week.

You know where I’m going with this.

“There are benefits and pitfalls wherever you land on each dimension,” Chris said. “All traits are good and bad, depending on the scenario. They are all our strengths and all our weaknesses.”

Chris was trying to make me feel better about my tendency to let my personality sabotage my fitness goals.

“There’s no perfect profile,” he assured me.

“Knowing these things about yourself can be very helpful,” he added.

“And the key to your success.”

You can take the Big 5 Personality Test here.

Carolee Belkin Walker is the author of Getting My Bounce Back, out in February 2018, and the host of My Brain on Endorphins, available on Stitcher and iTunes.

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