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It’s all in the mind

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Fitness Experts say exhaustion during an exercise routine can be overcome by giving oneself a pep talk

Leap of confidenceHelps build physical stamina
Leap of confidenceHelps build physical stamina

Tell yourself during exercise that you’re not as tired as you think you are and you could make that statement true, a new study shows, reminding us that the body intertwines with the mind in ways that we are only starting to understand. For the new experiment researchers from the University of Kent in Canterbury, and other institutions turned to a group of 24 healthy, physically active young men and women and asked if they would be willing to ride a bicycle to the point of limp exhaustion, repeatedly.

Physical fatigue is a surprisingly enigmatic condition. Scientists don’t fully understand how the body knows when it has had enough. Many of us might guess that activity ceases once our muscles have run out of fuel or fluids. But in studies with rodents, even after they are pushed to run until they drop, scientists have found reserves of fuel in the animals’ muscles. Physiologically, they remain capable of more exercise, although their bodies don’t seem to think so. That possibility motivated the new experiment, which was designed specifically to determine whether verbally encouraging yourself during a draining workout can affect your mind’s calculations and stave off fatigue.

To test that idea, the scientists first took a series of baseline physical measurements of their volunteers. Then, during a separate lab visit, the volunteers were asked to pedal a computerised stationary bicycle at about 80 per cent of their predetermined maximum force until they felt that they could pedal no more and quit. Throughout, the scientists measured each rider’s heart rate, pedalling power and pace. Having attached electrodes to the riders’ foreheads and cheeks, the researchers also monitored their facial muscular contractions — i.e., grimaces — an accepted physiological indicator of increasing physical exertion. Once each rider’s measurements had been recorded, they were randomly divided into two groups. One group was told to continue with their normal exercise routine for the next two weeks. Those in the other group were coached in “self-talk,” the kind of verbal banter that many athletes engage in during workouts, whether done aloud or silently. Then each group returned to the lab and underwent another cycling test to exhaustion, during which the riders in the self-talk group studiously repeated their mantras; some aloud, some silently.

Afterward, it was obvious that self-talk had bolstered riders’ feelings and performance. The group that had talked to themselves had pedalled much longer before succumbing to exhaustion than in their first rides and their heart rates and facial expressions had remained the same, indicating that the physical exertion had been just as great as in the initial ride. The riders in the other group, meanwhile, generally repeated their performances from before, lasting about the same amount of time before quitting. On one level, these findings indicate that “motivational self-talk improves endurance performance compared to not using it,” said Samuele Marcora, senior author of the study. But a deeper reading of the data, he continued, buttresses the idea that physical exhaustion develops, to a considerable degree, in your head. To be effective, though, self-talk probably has to be consistent and systematic, he said.

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