Why It Can Be Hard to Prioritize Stetching

Why the Stretching Habit Can Be Hard to MaintainI maintain a very active physical training regimen between my martial arts and stunt-oriented training. I train in martial arts and parkour 3-4 times a week. I do high intensity interval cardio training twice a week. I do strength training once a week. I practice fight choreography 2-3 times a week. I do weapons training 3 times a week. I can’t even think of everything I do off-hand. I do a lot. I keep track of all my training using an app called Habit List, which lets me know how well I’m keeping up with my training goals. For the most part, my physical goals are all well maintained. So why is it that my goal of doing daily stretching is in the red every week when I’m generally pretty good at sticking to my goals?

The Key Lies in the Goal Posts

I believe the reason why it’s hard for me lies in the goals underlying my stretching regimen. There are two main goals to my stretching. One is to keep my legs limber, for doing head-level kicks for stunt fighting. The other is to keep my shoulders from getting overly tight and/or knotted from all the training I do. I find it a LOT easier to keep up with my leg stretching, while I find myself slacking off when it comes to my shoulders. This distinction is the key. Like most of my training, there is a distinct and appreciable goal in doing my leg stretching. It allows me to do something specific. I get to do head-level kicks and enjoy the rewards the stretching gives. That’s like most of my other training. Obviously, training specific skills in the martial arts and parkour allows me to do those skills. Cardio and strength training help give me the energy and strength to do higher forms of training and improves my ability to do all my physical skills. I don’t need to do shoulder stretching to allow me to do anything in my skill set. I recognize that keeping my shoulders healthy can help minimize potential injury. It also keeps me from getting as sore when I do other training, but these aren’t tangible goals. I don’t get a feeling of reward for doing my shoulder stretching.

This is related to some of what social psychologist Emily Balcetis talks about in her TedTalk Why Some People Find It Harder to Exercise than Others, which you can watch in its entirety below. Her thesis is that perception of the difficulty of whatever exercise you’re engaging in affects the person’s motivation, and that people who are less fit are more likely to see it as being harder than those who are more fit. Her solution is the “Eyes on the Prize” theory. Her and her team told test participants to keep their eyes on their target, which was a set of goal posts, when doing the physical exercise they had staged. It turned out that doing this caused participants to perceive the activity as being 17% easier. It also caused them to perform better with participants completing it 23% faster.

These findings are fascinating and could help a lot of people do better with their fitness goals. It also helps explain why I struggle to keep up with my shoulder stretching. There is no obvious “prize” to keep my eyes on. With my leg stretching, I can imagine myself doing high kicks. With my strength training, I can imagine myself doing some of the more strength oriented parkour moves. With my cardio training, I can imagine myself keeping my energy strong while sparring, grappling, or doing any other activity requiring cardio endurance. When I stretch my shoulders, there is no image in my head to hold on to, no goal to get excited about.

Factoring in the Intangible Penalties

Generally the penalties for not doing my shoulder stretching are fairly minor. So I get a bit stiff and knotted once in a while. No big deal. It’s only an issue if I get injured. Then, all of a sudden, it’s quite easy to maintain the stretching regimen. Injury and inability to do things I can usuallydo becomes immediately tangible. There is an obvious affect on my life. So then I become fully committed to stretching until the injury heals. When you’re healthy again, you start to forget that the stretching you were doing to heal your shoulder can also be used to help prevent the injury from happening again. Limber shoulders make you more manoeuvrable and can factor into injury prevention. But not strongly enough to make you feel like it’s absolutely vital until you start to get older and everything starts to get tighter due to age. I imagine when that starts to happen to me, I’ll become a lot better at doing regular stretching.

The Solution? Forging the Habit

I fully admit to not having succeeded at overcoming the challenge I’ve been facing. However, I also recognize that the solution lies in establishing it as a habit. I’ve written about this in my blog post Discipline is the New “Motivation”. Once the habit is established, it’ll be a lot easier to keep it going. I may simply have to set my mind to the measurable goal of doing my shoulder stretches every day for 30 days, long enough to get the habit going, as discussed in my previous blog post How to Adopt New Healthy Habits. Well, no time like the present. Ask me how it is going in 30 days.

Now over to you. What exercises that are important for you do you find hard to keep motivated to do? How have you coped with this challenge? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments. 🙂

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