Exercise obviously involves some amount of exertion. In the Sports Medicine field, this level of exertion is rated on the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is defined as “how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue.”
I have been noticing my own perception of exertion in certain activities, and realized that when I anticipate that an activity will be effortful, my perceived exertion rating increases. For example, when I am hiking and approach a challenging hill, I notice that immediately I feel a flutter in my chest accompanied by the thought “well, this is going to be hard”. As soon as I start climbing that hill, literally within a few yards, I can feel my heart rate and breathing rate increase even though I have only traversed a short distance, and have good cardiovascular health. This same reaction does not happen if I am walking up a small hill or a steady incline, so I began to wonder is it the anticipation of the effort that affects one’s perceived exertion rather than the exertion itself? Of course, I had to test this theory.
In subsequent walks, I employed a very specific strategy of keeping my gaze just slightly in front of my feet, yet far enough to see any obstacles in my path, rather than keeping my eye on the horizon. I practiced this on paths I was familiar with, as well as routes I had never walked before. My findings were interesting.
I found that with my gaze downwards on a diagonal trajectory, instead of looking upward to the top of what seemed like a never-ending hill, I was almost unaware that the terrain had changed to an upward incline, at least not to the degree that I had perceived when looking uphill. This seemed to avoid the initial sense of pending effort and the subsequent physical reaction. On routes that I was familiar with, I was able to climb that same hill with little effort that was previously an arduous climb, and was caught by surprise when I reached the top of the hill sooner than anticipated with energy to spare.
Before this experiment, I would shy away from routes that would fall into the moderate or advanced category for fear that the hike would be too difficult. While in Kauai, Hawaii in May, I used my new strategy to tackle an unfamiliar 8-hour scrambling hike on wet surfaces and severe vertical inclines. Not knowing that this was as difficult a route as it was, I had no opportunity to psych myself out or anticipate any amount of extreme effort. The result was amazing, it was the most beautiful hike I had experienced, and much easier than I would have perceived if given the opportunity.
I began to apply this thought to other activities. For example, in my Pilates practice, there are a number of exercises in the Classical order that would be considered difficult to master. As I struggle through these movements, I had to ask myself how much of this was a challenge of physical strength, and how much was some barrier I had projected onto myself as a result of a past injury? The answer: maybe a bit of both, but after all, isn’t that what’s great about Pilates? The saying goes “if it’s not hard, you’re not doing Pilates”. It is meant to be a challenge to the mind and body. So, I decided to challenge my mind to stop anticipating difficulty, and start discovering ways to make these difficult movements possible. Success! Suddenly, I was working through the Classical order with fluidity, without convincing myself to skip the ones that I thought I couldn’t do.
After practicing this new strategy in a number of activities and at varying speeds or intensities, I can attest, at least for myself, that perception is only reality if you let it be so. More importantly, perception may often be skewed and exaggerated in our mind’s eye. That realization is half the battle in overpowering our mind with our own will to succeed.
Holly Wallis, Certified Movement & Rehabilitation Specialist, PMA®-CPT
Director of US Operations, Body Harmonics Pilates & Movement Institute
Studio Director, ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611
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