Language Matters

Written by Justin Wright

How do you address those you interact with in class at the gym? Furthermore, how do you describe those people, describe yourself, or describe the workout? What type of vernacular are you using on a regular basis when you show up to train? For most of us, this behavior probably falls under the category of autopilot. Although we don’t give it much conscious thought, I am here to tell you that we should.

Subconscious vs Conscious Thought

There are two types of thought patterns that are constantly working together in our brains to help determine our responses to the world around us. Our conscious mind consists of active thoughts, and ultimately leads to decisions that we have weighed and measured to some degree. Our subconscious mind, on the other hand, is a background player; these thoughts occur passively or reflexively based on our environment. Our subconscious is always working whether we are aware of it or not, and these thoughts can have a dramatic effect on the way we perceive the world around us. To use an example, being hungry is a subconscious feeling, whereas deciding to go the fridge and get food is a conscious decision.

Our mind has a limited bandwidth for how much information we can process at any given time (there are numerous studies which now show that multitasking is actually incredibly ineffective for long-term productivity). In an effort to preserve this bandwidth, our brain will often shift habitual or routine tasks from the realm of conscious thought into the subconscious. This is helpful when it comes to things like drinking water when we are thirsty, brushing our teeth before bed, or writing out a to-do list in the morning. When our subconscious is reinforcing bad habits, however, this can be problematic.

The Effect of Habits

Habits form due to consistent actions taken on a regular basis. As I just mentioned, brushing your teeth before you go to bed is probably a habit that almost all of you share. This action has become routine over time and is something that you likely do now without actively thinking about it. Showing up to the gym on a consistent schedule is likely one of your positive habits as well; as you settle into a fitness routine, you show up to class at the same times each week and likely see many of the same faces.

What about smoking a cigarette at times of stress? What about going to the bar after a long day at work? What about yelling at your spouse on days where your boss treats you poorly at the office? These are likely also habits that you have experienced in life. Whether they are your own or you know people who share these, the fact is that habitual action can ingrain negative habits just as easily as positive ones. Likewise, our habits inside the gym can be positive or negative.

The Power of Positivity vs Negativity

How many of you immediately comment on how hard the workout looks as soon as you read the board? How many times have you uttered the phrase, “I hate burpees!”? Oftentimes we reflect on workouts in a negative fashion, and focus more on the movements that are difficult for us than we do on our strengths. This may seem like a small, insignificant detail, but it can have a ripple effect on the subconscious thoughts of those around you.

Every time we have a thought, an electrical bridge is created between synapses in our brains. Synapses which most commonly fire in sequence grow closer together in an effort to conserve energy in these exchanges. The thoughts we most commonly have actually rewire our brain, and alter our subconscious, to make it easier to have those thoughts. If your default thought is negative, what do you think happens to your brain?

Furthermore, the subconscious mind picks up on the thought patterns that are occurring around us. If everyone in your class is complaining about a workout, chances are you will reflect negatively on that workout as well. Even if you are an otherwise positive person, that aura of negativity will pervade your own subconscious mind and cause you to have negative thoughts. If you are consistently attending the same classes with the same people, then your brain will rewire itself to be more in line with their thought patterns.

The Slippery Slope

As you can probably see, the thoughts you have, and thus the language you use, has a substantial effect on those around you. It can very quickly become a slippery slope of negativity if each person in class is feeding into, and reinforcing, the negative thoughts of everyone else. While this is likely happening to some degree in your classes now, the good news is that you can do something about it.

Just as negative thought patterns reinforce negativity, interjecting positive thought patterns has the opposite effect. The next time you become aware of a negative comment you have made, try and follow it up with something positive. If you say, “I hate burpees!” you can follow it up by saying, “But I am much better at them than I was before, so this workout should go well.” These subtle cues can start to slowly and noticeably change the thoughts, speech, and actions of those around you. If you start injecting more positivity into those conversations, it is likely that others will begin to follow suit.

If you keep this up long enough, you can shift the collective psyche of the group to trend positive. People will start to remark on the aspects of the workout they are excited for instead of the movements they dread. They will start to take pride in their strengths, instead of constantly focusing on their weaknesses. As the collective energy of your classes becomes more positive, you will likely enjoy these classes more and may even experience a better physiological effect from those workouts.

Take Control of Your Thoughts and Your Words

All of these changes start with you. They start by becoming aware of the negative language you may be currently using. Once you have gained this awareness, use your conscious mind to control your subconscious thought. Build up those around you, and focus on getting people in class excited for the workout instead of dreading it. Whether you are a new member, veteran member, or coach, understand that your thoughts and words do have an effect on others. Remember that health and wellness goes far beyond the purely physical. Mental health is just as important, if not more so, than the physical actions you take in the gym. Just remember that it all starts with your thoughts, and ultimately the language you choose to use in class!