Written by Coach Cathy Barry - Head Coach of Eclipse Track & Field Club Inc.
In my many years of coaching athletes and teams, I've noticed a disturbing trend in the level and ability of athletes to complete basic fitness exercises and they seem less motivated to engage. Athletes today seem to be less fit than their counterparts were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Why should this be when today we have more access to sports, we know more than we ever have, we have access to technology and information that should make us better and more knowledgeable. Have we become complacent and inundated with too much information and opportunities to the point where it's just too much? Or have we become just lazy or do we lack the motivation to engage or change? Don't get me wrong, I'm not placing every young person and team in the mix but I know I'm not the only one who has noticed this trend. The point of this blog is to explore the why and how and what if anything we can do to change this trend.
Why are athletes less fit today than before?
According to the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention "only about a half of boys and one-third of girls ages 12 to 15 had sufficient levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in 2012. The percentage of children in that age group with adequate levels of cardiorespiratory fitness dropped from 52.4 percent in 1999-2000 to 42.2 percent in 2012." What is Cardiorespiratory Fitness (CRF) and why is it important? Cardiorespiratory fitness is the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to provide sufficient support for the body during physical activity. It is measured by maximal oxygen uptake - the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise, which is also a reflection of a person's physical fitness. The less able this system can sustain the needs of the body during physical activity the less fit an individual is and essentially less healthy. To bring the statistics up to today's numbers, the American Heart Association states that "only 40% of youths have healthy CRFs. That leaves 60% of youths as "unhealthy". An unhealthy CRF can be an important marker in predicting current and future health and mortality.
So now that we know the numbers, why is this trend happening? Just like obesity, our sedentary lifestyles are more than likely more responsible for this trend - decreased levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Kids are now spending more and more time playing with mobile devices and watching TV instead of playing outside or doing sports. And in the last two years, COVID has exasperated this trend even more. We are a society of the digital age, always connected, always static, chained to our devices, desks, couches, cars, you name it.
Adding to this the ongoing trend is an unhealthy diet with a penchant for highly processed, high in sugar junk food that we love so much. We are no longer eating enough vegetables and complex carbohydrates and proteins that come from non-animal sources and it's affecting our kids' overall health. We are more concerned with convenience, ease of ordering food, all at the touch of a screen. These days, there's nothing you can't get delivered right to your door at any time of the day. There's no need any more to leave your house. What would our distant relatives - our hunter-gatherer forefathers and foremothers say to that?
Technology and progress are great and necessary, but what happens when their legacy is leaving behind societies of obese, unhealthy humans with reduced living expectancy? And how can we - all of us, change the trend? What is it going to take? There are countless articles, blogs, medical journals, books that speak on this subject, and yet, here we are, the numbers don't lie.
Interestingly enough, I came across an article written by Red River Health and Wellness Center that suggests that our "lack of motivation or laziness" may be related to chronic inflammation. According to this article, chronic inflammation impacts the area of the brain that governs motivation. This area of the brain is called the "dopaminergic signaling system which depends primarily on a brain chemical called dopamine - a neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, drive, and self-worth. If dopamine activity is poor, this could explain why you feel not only lazy but also worthless and ashamed for feeling lazy." (Red River Health and Wellness). The association here which is important to note, is that being sedentary is linked to inflammation in the body. According to the Review Article - Inflammation, physical activity, and chronic disease: An evolutionary perspective, physical inactivity is a critical regulator of systemic inflammation. Dopamine, Serotonin and Norepinephrine are all neurotransmitters that help regulate mood, increase motivation, reward and reinforcement. If inflammation affects these neurotransmitters, it will impact our mood, motivation and lead us feeling lazy. Also, important to note, a diet high in saturated fats, high in processed and highly refined sugar directly contributes to chronic inflammation in the body.
So, is it really our own fault that we are unmotivated and lazy? Or should we blame our fate on technological advances and the food industry and artificial chemicals? Is there any room here for personal responsibility? If we are really what we eat then we are in serious trouble.
So, how does all of this relate to being less fit today than before? Certainly, if we lack motivation and are "lazy" it's going to affect how physically active and engaged we are. Our choices will be guided in part by our motivation and drive. Those who are highly driven and motivated often will have the willingness to do things and want to achieve - a personal desire. Human nature is quite simple really, if there is interest (call it motivation and reward) we will do whatever it takes, but when there is a lack of interest - there is no desire and lack of motivation and we don't act or we only put in what little effort is required.
So how do we get motivated?
Well, you can start by picking one of a thousand motivational quotes to get you started:
Carpe Diem - Seize the Day
If you can dream it, you can do it
Stop Wishing, Start Doing
Nothing is Impossible
Do Not Give Up
That's a good start but is it enough. Probably not. What it takes is a "desire", a spark, enough to ignite a bit of passion. A new way of looking at things. Sometimes motivation and drive come when we are at our lowest point ever. A catalyst for change. It's what gets out of bed every day. Our "Ikigai" which is Japanese for our reason for being, our sense of purpose.
The way you conceptualize your goals and the way you are leading your life, will determine if you will achieve your goals or whether you will quit. This requires appropriate knowledge and insight into yourself and your wants and desires.
So, firstly you need to take a deep dive and take a look inside. What do you want, what do you see as your reason for being, what do you see as your purpose? What do you want to achieve for yourself? Of course, if we look at this from an Athletic Perspective, what do we want to achieve in the sport we are in? What are our goals from an individual perspective and a team perspective. Once you can verbalize these, you can then start to create and action plan and move in the direction you want.
Once you can see your goals and vision, focus your energy on a simple goal to help you achieve this first. It's much simpler to focus our energy on one task and complete it rather than spend little bit here and there and not complete any tasks. Start simple and increase in difficulty once you start mastering your goals. This helps create a positive trend in the right direction and lays down the foundation for the building blocks to achieve. Breaking down goals into smaller ones or stepping stones is a great way to climb that mountain that seems daunting at first.
Keep in mind, that setbacks happen and you need to manage your expectations. Frustration will be the first step to quitting and giving up. If you fail or can't do it, regroup and go to plan b, plan c, plan d etc... sometimes it will take many attempts to reach one simple goal. Embrace the journey that it takes, count the failures as learning experiences and essential to completing that goal. Remember that there is no right or wrong as we are all individuals and we all learn and act in different ways.
Mindfulness and meditation are great ways to accomplish a new shift in thinking. Mindfulness and meditation help individuals to live in the present moment and keep us engaged in daily actives and being gracious for the things we already have. Tied to this is "visualization of our goals" which also helps in driving the achievement of our goals.
Often the people we surround ourselves with, will influence our motivation and perspective in life. It goes without saying that the company you keep will creating influence your goals and your life. Surrounding yourself with positive people who support you will go a long way to helping you achieve your goals and gain that motivate you need. This can be a relative, a friend, a coach or a mentor. Anyone who wants to support or help you to get where you want to be. Along with this comes asking for help from those around us. At times we will face setbacks, we won't be motivated, we will be tired, emotionally drained. Those are the times when we need to lean in on those who can support us. It's important to ask for guidance and help when we need it. Be kind to yourself, compassionate and understanding but also don't give up because of a setback.
Lastly, change your eating habits and your physical activity. As mentioned above, if we can prevent chronic inflammation brought on by the food we eat and the lack of activity, we can drastically change our neuro chemistry to be better balanced and improve our mood, motivation and drive.
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