The Art and Science of Fitness | How to bridge the gap in intention and habit - Hindustan Times

The Art and Science of Fitness | How to bridge the gap in intention and habit

Aug 15, 2023 01:01 AM IST

If you already have the intention to be more active and fit, you need to revisit your ‘why’. Is it to satisfy your ‘real self’ or actualise your ‘ideal self’?

We tend to make all kinds of fitness resolutions in the New Year. This ranges from exercising regularly, going to the gym, cutting down on sugar, cigarettes or alcohol to reducing screen time, sleeping on time, meditating, staying calm, and living in the moment.

Intention is a good starting point because without it you can’t get anywhere, but we need to figure out how to convert our intentions into actions. (Pixabay) PREMIUM
Intention is a good starting point because without it you can’t get anywhere, but we need to figure out how to convert our intentions into actions. (Pixabay)

As we know by experience, the intention to become a better version of ourselves doesn’t always translate to a habit. Most of us fall off the wagon. What are we missing when we cannot convert intention into habit?

Intent and action

A study published last month in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the intention-behaviour gap in physical activity. A team of researchers comprising Katharina Feil, Ryan E Rhodes and Julian Fritsch, selected 25 independent samples from 22 studies that were conducted between June 2022 and February 2023. In all, this included 29,600 subjects.

The study noted that intention is the “proximal antecedent of physical activity in many popular psychological models.” The researchers examined the discrepancy between intention and actual behaviour, concerning the intention of becoming physically active and the actual behaviour change.

However, the intention wasn’t enough to make a behavioural change. The researchers found that 33% of all the participants had the intention to be more active but were unsuccessful. Only 38.7% of those surveyed had the intentions and were also successful at it. The intention-behaviour gap was 47.6%, leading the researchers to acknowledge that intention while necessary was insufficient on its own.

Intention is a good starting point because without it you can’t get anywhere, but we need to figure out how to convert our intentions into actions. As a trainer, there is a need to prioritise those who already have the will to exercise, which according to the study, is 70% of the population. It is unfortunate that almost half of those who do have the intention to be fitter are somehow not able to carry on. Hence, we need to start with those who have the intention but fail to make it a habit.

By no means am I suggesting that we give up on the non-intenders, but we should take a smarter approach to make a bigger impact. More than motivational talks and videos, once people see close family and friends making exercising a habit, they are motivated to follow their path.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna said, “The meaning of Karma is in the intention. The intention behind the action is what matters. Those who are motivated only by a desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.”

Now, the above statement can be misunderstood or misquoted by those looking for excuses not to be active. By no means is Lord Krishna suggesting that there is no need for action. Action has to be taken, but the intention must be clear. Intention without action is as good as nothing.

Converting intention to habit

A study titled, ‘When fixing problems kills personal development’, published on August 3 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience is an exegesis of the latter half of Krishna’s above quote. Believer or not, you have got to wonder how such an old scripture turns out to be this apt about things, whether it be to help Robert Oppenheimer or to help us get up from our couch.

The study’s lead author, Anthony Ian Jack, an associate professor in philosophy, teamed up with Richard Boyatzis, a university professor in the departments of organisational behaviour and psychology, and PhD graduate Angela Passarelli, all from Case Western Reserve University.

The researchers used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to quantify neural activity in the brain while subjects engaged in coaching and visual attention tasks. The brain function was examined to compare the subject’s ‘ideal self’, i.e. the person they’d like to be and are excited about what the future holds, to their ‘real self’, i.e. the person they actually are and afraid of failing to achieve what is expected of them.

The study was conducted on 47 undergraduate students from the University after they had a series of 30-minute coaching sessions. The selected subjects were right-hand dominant, native English speakers and not pregnant. Volunteers were dropped from the study if they had high scores on the depression, anxiety, and stress scale (DASS-21), had claustrophobia, neurological disorders or if they were pursuing majors in cognitive science.

All the subjects were randomly assigned to have 0, 1, 2 or 3 ‘ideal self’ coaching sessions within one week of each other, followed by the ‘real self’ session. The fMRI was done within one week of the final session.

Think of your ‘ideal self’

To understand this better, it is imperative to first understand the meaning of these terms, ‘ideal’ and ‘real self’, as they can be confusing. Here ‘ideal self’ refers to the individual as they most desire to be, with their strengths fully realised and their weaknesses minimised. The ‘ideal self’ could refer to being happy and at peace with yourself. They tend to embrace and accept that aspect of self called the ‘accepted self’. Without giving much heed to what others think, the ‘ideal self’ focuses on the gains and what is possible.

On the other hand, ‘real self’ refers to the individual as they are at present, with their strengths and weaknesses. The ‘real self’ is afraid of failing at whatever you do. It could refer to thinking of yourself being too thin, too fat, too slow, diabetic, in pain, too sad, etc. Based on what society reinforces and reminds them, these individuals judge and reject or accept this self of theirs. Others have imposed on them what they should be like and once that has been internalised, it is called ‘ought self’, and remains focused on how one is failing.

The anchor question, in this study, asked by the coach for the ‘ideal self’ condition was, “If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?” And for the ‘real self’ condition it was, “What challenges have you encountered or do you expect to encounter in your experience here?”

During the fMRI scan, the participants were presented with a total of 96 pre-recorded videos of the coaches making statements about the participant’s educational experience or outlook on the future. These statements were developed around the themes of hope, compassion, mindfulness and playfulness in the ‘ideal self’ condition and lack thereof in the ‘real self’ condition.

Navon figures(Frontiers Human Neuroscience)
Navon figures(Frontiers Human Neuroscience)

Next, they were asked to look at large letters comprising smaller letters, eg. a larger E made of smaller which are called Navon figures. They were to focus on either the large (global) or component (local) letters in blocks of 10 figures. fMRI scans measured the small changes in blood flow that occur in the brain in response to different task conditions mentioned above.

The researchers found that ‘ideal self’ coaching activated neural regions of the anterior occipital cortex of the brain, the area associated with imagination, which is the same as while focusing on larger (global) letters. Global attention fosters creative, big-picture thinking and integration of novel, uncertain, or incomplete data into inclusive, superordinate knowledge structures.

The above finding suggests that big picture thinking is far more important for fitness rather than just short term goals. Also, the ones who can dream to be their ideal self, going beyond the expectations of others, would be happier and more content, than those who end up living their lives for everyone else around them, never accomplishing their dreams.

On the other hand, researchers found that ‘real self’ coaching activated the neural regions of the posterior occipital lobe, the area associated with early sensory processing of component details, which is the same as those while focusing on smaller (local) letters. Local attention emphasises differentiation, attention to detail, and activation of narrow cognitive categories that can lead to the omission of important incoming stimuli.

The researchers concluded, “Coaches should also focus on developing the individual’s strengths rather than their weaknesses, and they should employ empathic listening. These strategies should increase acceptance of the 'ideal self'.”

Parents, doctors, teachers, trainers, coaches, bosses and everyone else are trained to ‘fix a problem’ that you are facing. It’s an external perspective that’s forced upon us without even taking into account what the individual wants. Also, there needs to be a mindshift from focusing on things that the society tells you need to do to what is it that excites you.

This takes us back to the latter half of the quote above from Bhagavad Gita. “Those who are motivated only by a desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.” Even though this has been passed on from generations over thousands of years to us Indians, it simply hasn’t registered.

As much as Arjuna might have been confused because it was again Lord Krishna who had told him to concentrate on the eye of the fish during Draupadi's swayamvar, we need to always be aware of our bigger objective. As a runner, when we’ve become slaves to numbers, we only want to run faster and longer than others, forgetting why we began our running journey.

It was to connect with ourselves and because it gave us joy like nothing else. Those numbers for runners, and that eye of the fish for Arjuna, are only meant to be checkpoints, not the final destination. The same applies to strength training and any other physical activity including all sports.

Be your own best friend

The first step is to become our own best friends. As the story goes, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, after the failure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (First War of Independence), kept waiting for his servants to make him wear his shoes, as the British forces were heading his way to arrest him. But the servants didn't show up as they had run away to save their lives. We all should learn from this that no one is coming to our rescue if we don't even take the first few steps on our own.

If Bahadur Shah Zafar had stopped thinking about what the society would say and think, and focused on what was good for him, history could have told a different tale.

If you already have the intention to be more active and fitter, you need to revisit your ‘why’. If it is for your ‘real self’ and ‘ought self’, you need to consciously switch the journey to your ‘ideal self’ and ‘accepted self’. To simplify it, begin with a smile on your face, telling yourself that you can and get on with it because you can and you will. This will convert that intention into a lifelong habit.

Dr Rajat Chauhan ( is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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