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Reticular Activating System and Exercise

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RAS and Exercise

 

 

 

 

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of internal questioning through values and threats. Werner Heisenberg

 

 

 

Who has purchased a new outfit only to see that exact outfit the following day? Who has purchased a new car and then noticed that every body is driving the same car as you? Who have joined a gym and suddenly seen advertisements and gyms everywhere?

 

If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you are familiar with the power of your Reticular Activating System (RAS). Your RAS is a very complex collection of neurons connected to the spinal cord, which serves as a point of convergence from the internal and external environments (Steriade, 1996). In other words, it is the part of the brain where the world outside of you, and your thoughts and feelings inside of you meet.

 

As it is impossible for our senses to focus on and understand every piece of stimuli that occurs in the outside world, we use our RAS to prevent overload by filtering external stimuli and only focusing on information that our internal environment considers important (Evans, 2003). Anthony Robbins (1998) provides an illustration by associating the RAS portion of the brain to an editor. He notes that it is the portion of the brain that decides which information gets used and which information gets discarded.

 

There are numerous internal systems, which (including your beliefs, identity, reference systems, needs, wants, thoughts and feelings) have an impact on the information that is filtered by your RAS. Sam Varner (2001) explains these systems by grouping them into 2 categories. The first category is anything we consider to have value, and the second category is anything we perceive as posing a threat. For example, you may internally value a healthy body and therefore source out external environments where you can exercise regularly and eat healthy foods. If someone has a different filtering system where their internal values focuses on eating fast foods, smoking and drinking everyday and not exercising, you would consider them a threat and thus avoid them to protect your own internal values.

 

When I first began personal training, I assisted a client who had seen different personal trainers on off with little success. He was 34 years old and his main goal was weight loss and muscle development. This was the first time he had joined a gym with most of his previous training sessions occurring in the outdoor environment. He was always so involved with work and social commitments that he never internally valued a healthy lifestyle and a fit body. His internal value system was more consistent with the belief that “people who exercise regularly in a gym are artificial and extreme”, and so his perception was someone who would never join the gym to get fit. It wasn’t until he fell in love and set his wedding day that he realised that he may need to get fit.

 

He had 6 months to get into shape before his wedding day. His initial goal with his first trainer focused on a 6 month plan where he would lose weight and increase muscle mass. He informed me that he began strongly for the first 3 weeks but then started to experience personal challenges where he could no longer motivate himself to train regularly. He believed that this was because he had not seen any results from the first 3 weeks of training.

After training on and off over that 6 month period and also changing trainers regularly, he came to the conclusion that the trainers programs and principles were not working. He never realised that his internal value system was geared to failing. When I probed a little deeper I realised that he was only training 2 days per week with no lifestyle or nutritional changes. He explained that his reason for this was still that people who exercised and ate healthy foods on a day to day basis were “extreme and artificial”.

 

The challenge for me was to alter his filtering process by changing his internal systems and the way he viewed health and fitness. To achieve this I needed to work with him to rewire his neurological pathways with discipline, commitment, consistency and hard work.

Below I have outlined three fundamental steps that I implemented to assist him in creating permanent change.

 

The first step involves creating awareness that change needs to occur. To achieve this it is important to truly understand what it is you want, and what the limitations have been that have stopped you from achieving what you want in the past (Robbins, 1998). For example, the main goal for my client was weight loss and muscle mass and thus we worked together to clearly outline exactly how much weight he wanted to lose and how much muscle mass he wanted to develop. We were very specific with this step with a clear target and measurement for each week that he trained. It is important to realise that your subconscious mind is an answering machine to any beliefs provided by your conscious mind. If you have clarity and a strong vision about what you want, then your subconscious mind will filter the right information and messages for you to achieve it.

 

Secondly you need to take the information outlined in step 1 and build leverage by rewiring your internal beliefs with a splash of excitement and expectancy. The hardest task for any one who tries to achieve change is building leverage (Robbins, 1998). Leverage is built at an emotional level not an intellectual level (Steriade, 1996). Most people are intellectually aware that a change must occur, but never seem too kinder up enough strength and excitement to achieve change on an emotional level. This is where you have no doubts or discomforts with change and you are 100% committed and excited to achieving your desired results. A key to successfully achieving this is to find someone who has achieved the desired goal that you are aiming for and model yourself on them.

 

The third step requires you to implement cognitive pause where you create a habit of disruption on a constant basis (Schilperoord, 2002). This will help you build leverage and break old internal systems of behaviour. For example, I encouraged my client to wear a watch and set an alarm on his watch for a 2 hour period throughout the day. Every time his alarm went of I asked him to stop and think consciously about the thoughts he was having at that particular moment. I then asked him to try and write down his thoughts no matter how bizarre or irrelevant he may have thought they were. His goal was to analyse those thoughts and then reword those thoughts into a positive uplifting statement. As an example, he would often get down on himself at the way he looked. I encouraged him to find a part of his body that he liked and then to highlight that part in words every time his alarm went of and he was having those negative thoughts. It truly amazed him how this simple activity had him thinking differently about the thoughts he was having in his head.

 

As you commit to reprogramming your thoughts and changing your RAS, it is important to understand that you need to be disciplined and committed. You will need to do this over and over until the new thoughts become engrained in your internal systems. Don’t get hard on yourself if you stumble or give up, as it is tough and confronting and you will make mistakes, but remember: Every attempt you make, breaks down bit by bit those barriers in your head and moves you one step closer to a new thought process.

 

 

 

References

 

 

Evans, B.M. (2003). Sleep, consciousness and the spontaneous and evoked electrical activity of the brain. Is there a cortical integrating mechanism? Neuophysiologie clinique 33: 1–10.

 

Robbins, A. (1998) Unlimited Power: Nightingale Tapes USA: Seller: Zygmo

 

Schilperoord, J. On the Cognitive Status of Pauses in Discourse Production: Contemporary Tools and Techniques for Studying Writing: Springer Netherlands

Studies in Writing Volume 10, 2002, pp 61-87.

 

Steriade, M. (1996). Arousal: Revisiting the reticular activating system. Science 272 (5259): 225–226.

 

Varner, S. (2001). Slimmer Younger Stronger: 12 Simple Things You Can Do to Achieve Optimum Health. Element Books Ltd: Boston.

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