So much of what we do here at SOA is centered around building the body and physical skills we desire.
But it’s important to remember that the body and the mind are intricately linked, and both need attention and development for optimal health and performance.
This week’s interview addresses that other side of health and fitness that is often forgotten about; the mind.
I asked Dr Michael Mantell, clinical psychologist and behavior change expert, a few questions about where the fitness industry is going wrong, and what we can do to develop a more rounded view of health and wellness.
Here’s what he had to say!
Why don’t you introduce yourself? Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Michael Mantell, and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to chat with your readers.
My wife and I met in 1966, when we were both in high school, West Orange Mountain High, in West Orange, New Jersey. I was a senior and she was a sophomore. It was love at first sight and now after almost 44 years of marriage, two sons, and six grandchildren, it encapsulates the first part of your question, “who are you?” That’s how I define myself, through my family, our strong spiritual and religious beliefs, and our closeness, love and full-time support of each other.
I am a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Council on Active Aging, the Chief Consultant for Behavior Science for the Premier Fitness Camp at Omni La Costa, a presenter for Rancho La Puerta, and I’ve written three books including the 25th Anniversary updated edition of my 1988 original Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, P.S. It’s All Small Stuff. I’m proud to say that I’m listed in the 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”
Currently I spend most of my time writing, speaking at conferences around the world and helping people use the latest findings in fitness behavioral science to optimize their health and wellness. For me, it’s all about enhancing and preserving fitness/health and preventing illness, leading to better, optimally healthier living, with increased sociability and deeper meaning.
What first drew you to the field of clinical psychology, and how/why did you then become involved with health and fitness?
I follow paths in life that are presented to me, fortunately very wisely, and always see the benefits of these decisions. For example, after completing my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, we were set planning to set up home in Philadelphia, start a new job and begin life’s trajectory for success.
A call came to visit cousins in California, we jumped on a plane, and during the week we met a fellow we didn’t know waiting on line at a restaurant. We began chatting randomly, and that led to a job interview as Chief Psychologist at Children’s Hospital and Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSD Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.
I got the job, stayed for about five years, when another random meeting with the then-Chief of Police, Bill Kolender, led to a discussion of establishing a psychological services program for police officers. I applied for the opportunity to create this program, and at the City Council interview, when asked “what a kid from the east knew about cops in the west,” I put the pen I was holding back in my pocket, pushed back from the table and prepared to simply leave.
The Police Chief gave me a kick under the table and told me to answer. “Sir, if you are looking for someone to treat the badge, that’s not me. If you want someone to care for the men and women who wear the badge, that’d be me.” I got the contract, built that program and stayed in police psychology for about twenty years. This included being the point person for media interviews in the face of the largest single day massacre in a workplace by a lone gunman in the history of the US—the famed McDonald’s Massacre.
That led to my working in the media (although I was doing radio as a child from the age of seven years old), including a decade at Good Morning America, interviews on Oprah, The Today Show, Larry King Live, all of the major news channels and a couple of years as a regular on CBS, the CW and Fox in San Diego.
When I read an article a number of years ago that the American Council on Exercise (ACE) was going to attempt to eradicate the obesity epidemic, I called them, not knowing anything about them. I told them that I wrote my thesis at Hahnemann Medical College on the psychological aspects of obesity and that they had left out an important leg of their effort.
They had a focus on exercise and nutrition, two legs of the tripod, but had completely left out the mind. The woman I spoke with asked if I’d come in to chat. I told them I was visiting our children on the east coast and she said that ACE was located in San Diego. Boom! As soon as I returned, we met and almost immediately after that meeting they appointed me Senior Consultant for Behavior Sciences, a position I’ve enjoyed holding for a number of years.
During that time, I built the idea of coaching, not training, as the new direction to move in. We created the Health Coach Certification, and I pushed the idea of the “path to the future being coaching” in many speeches for ACE around the country.
This led me to furthering my career in coaching and fitness. I began seeing the faults of clinical psychology focusing on disease, illness, patients, diagnoses, psycho-therapy as too negative, adopting a medical model and seeing many degrees of normal unhappiness, worry, frustration as clinical entities to be “treated.”
I pulled back from working in the medical model and adopted the positive approach that coaching is grounded in, providing behavior science coaching and breakthrough strategies for business leaders, entrepreneurs, elite amateur and professional athletes, individuals, families and fitness organizations to reach new levels of success and significance in their professional and personal lives.
You promote a more rounded approach to fitness than just getting that “beach body” look. Why is such a multi-faceted view of health and fitness beneficial?
The current trend to make exercise a battle ground in which you “blast your abs” is harmful because it focuses far too much on muscle rather than optimal health. “This insane workout will kill you” or “I’m going to push you past your physical and mental limits”? While telling clients that you’re going to get them chiseled, shredded, jacked, blasted and cut may boost your testosterone, it may also turn off clients who don’t really believe “life begins at the end of your comfort zone” or “hard is what makes it great.”
Equally, these same clients may not understand terms such as “fire those glutes,” “relax the traps,” or “engage your core.” Because your language sets the tone for what you communicate and how you establish rapport, these terms and phrases may inadvertently be turning off more clients than you attract, since it focuses on one thing; glorified muscle.
Working out is not a military enlistment, war or soldierly challenge. It’s about relaxing, taking care of yourself, becoming healthier and fitter, living better and happier, and making a commitment to personal lifestyle change. How and when did fitness professionals co-opt the idea that to build a book of clients, a training session has to be an ass-to-the-grass, fire-breathing, macho, skull-crushing, body-whipping gun show?
Connecting with others—communicating with them, entering their world, and making certain they feel understood—is deeply embedded in humanity. Without trust and mutual understanding built into the interpersonal connection, the likelihood of a relationship being impactful, helpful, enduring, sought after and successful is minimal at best.
Trainers, like successful business leaders, need to focus on powerfully communicating a can-do, hopeful vision and energizing through words and body language—not frightening off or creating an internal belief within the client that says, “this is too much for me.” Too many people are pushing “no pain, no gain” and that’s absurd. It’s also unhealthy. More is not always more, and working out is not an obligation, it should be fun.
It’s time to focus on THEAMO—thinking, eating and moving—and this is a lifelong opportunity to explore health, not simply shred muscles. How’d we go from drooling over Marilyn Monroe’s body to wanting to be like anorexic Barbie models? Marilyn wore about a size 12-16!
The wheel of wellness truly differentiates health – fitness professionals’ focus includes the physical, environmental, psychological, social, occupational and spiritual. Of course, this is done all within scope of practice, but great coaches are concerned about these points along with the multi-faceted approach to helping clients obtain and maintain optimal health.
Tell us a little bit about your work with athletes. What can a behavioural psychologist bring to an athlete at the top of their game?
I work with elite amateur and professionals to assist them in developing goals and strategies to enhance their performance on game day, develop mental toughness to perform in the moment, practice visualization and other meditative tools to prevent a mindset of fear, uncertainty and self-doubt.
We focus on the competition and help them prevent, not simply manage, stress and pressure. Some athletes require sound business coaching support, others need to learn to see the good in an injury, and still others benefit from media training.
It’s often implied that achieving extreme fitness is just a case of wanting it enough. Is that the case? Can everyone get there, or are the truly elite just wired differently?
The truly elite are truly elite ultimately because they understand “the link is what you think.” The wiring of truly elite folks (in athletics, in the gym, and in the workplace) is in the mind.
This doesn’t mean that extreme fitness is about telling yourself you are a rough tough unbeatable fighting machine. The truly fit persevere in the gym and at home in meeting their goals, they stray from their comfort zone, and are never their own critic—they only see the positive and learn from what went wrong (that’s their “tuition”).
The mind drives the body, so it had better be a positively-focused mind, one that understands that even when they are stopped, they are not stopped. Wanting it is the beginning, but defining the goal is a central ingredient and having the support team in place to achieve it is what’s needed.
For those just starting working out, how do you recommend forming those all-important habits that make sure this is a permanent lifestyle change, rather than just a flash in the pan?
First, too often the media portrays fitness as something filled with the newest toy in the story. This promotes the “flash in the pan” mentality. Every fitness magazine cover focuses on the next new answer and this supports people jumping from one goal to the next. Not good!
Let’s turn this around by setting SMARTER intentions – specific, measureable, achievable, realistic, time bound, enthusiastically set and revisable. Then continually visualize already having achieved your intention(s). See yourself on the cover of the magazine, accepting the award, crossing the finish line, or that magic dress size or tee shirt fitting exactly as you wished. The key is to see it having already happened. Not future thinking, but past thinking.
Of course, plan ahead and make every move of your day one that sustains your intentions(s). Schedule, carry the clothing you need, pack the food you want, read menus before you go into the restaurant, and set the rewards ahead of time. It’s important to track your progress along the way. Workout accountability buddies are often very valuable.
Start with simple habit changes. Exercise for five minutes a day and add a few minutes each week. Stand up, sit down and then stand up again when you leave a room. Sit down, stand up and sit down again when you come to the table or your desk. Drink water whenever offered a drink instead of sweet drinks.
Socializing habit change is critical for support. Social media can be a real help, but be careful of going overboard on that. Real life social buddies who share your goals and are not overly competitive can help you move forward.
Take it easy! One habit at a time ensures success. Is this habit change truly a number one priority? If it’s not, rethink it. And if you aren’t enjoying your steps to habit change, you are doing something wrong.
Pack your motivation wherever you go. This includes packing your “believing in yourself”, your “knowing you will accomplish your intention(s)”, your buddies, your favorite music. Pack your free time to include your intention(s), and always make it convenient.
There are a tons recommendations out there for getting past physical fitness plateaus, but how do we get past psychological barriers? How do we get back lost motivation or past a mental block?
Anxiety, for example, is a great blocker. This occurs when you believe you’re in danger because you think something bad is about to happen. “What if the plane crashes?” “What if my mind goes blank when I give my talk in front of all those people?” “What if this chest pain is the start of a heart attack?”
Feeling inadequate and filled with the “I can’t do that” mentiality occurs when you compare yourself to others and conclude that you’re not as good as they are, because you’re not as talented, attractive, charming, successful, intelligent. “She’s really got what it takes. She’s so cute. All the men are chasing her. I’m just average. There’s nothing very special about me.”
Hopeless or discouraged feelings come from feeling convinced that your problems will go on forever and that things will never improve. “I’ll never get over this depression.” “I just can’t lose weight and keep it off.” “I’ll never find a good job.” “I’ll be alone forever.”
Our reactions to having our goals blocked (or even the possibility of having them blocked) are determined by our beliefs. To illustrate this, here’s a simple numbered format to teach you how your beliefs cause your emotional and behavioral responses:
- Something happens.
- You have a belief about the situation.
- You have an emotional reaction to the belief, not the situation:
- “I must do well and it’s terrible if I don’t.”
- “You must treat me well and it’s awful when you don’t.”
- “Life must be fair and it’s the end of the world when it’s not.”
Instead, this is healthier “anti-awfulizing” thinking:
- “I want to do well but I don’t have to do so. It’s bad if I don’t do well, but not terrible.”
- “I want you to treat me well, but unfortunately you don’t have to do so. When you don’t treat me well, it’s really unfortunate but not awful.”
- “I very much want life to be fair, but unfortunately it doesn’t have to be the way I want it to be. If life is unfair, that’s very bad, but not the end of the world.”
I could write a book on this, and did; Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, P.S. It’s All Small Stuff 25th Anniversary edition. Blocks are all mental, and coaching with a cognitively-oriented coach will help reset rational thinking.
In the face of the obesity crisis, what are some of the best things parents can do to instill healthy habits in their children? And is there anything they shouldn’t do?
Parents are, above all, role models, and children learn what they live. So how about eating one meal a day together with your children? How about unplugging from your own cell phone and ipad? How about watching the negative way you speak with your children and instead encouraging them to believe in themselves? How about engaging in movement activity as a family?
How about never, ever, using food as a reward? How about monitoring media, social media, music, magazines? How about teaching good manners? How about encouraging active play for an hour a day? How about never serving soda? How about watching the food you bring into the home? How about deleting the “clean plate club” from your lexicon?
How about remembering that food is not comfort and love? How about choosing age-appropriate physical activity? How about letting kids have fun? How about understanding that not every child is an athlete, some are casual athletes, and others are simply not into athletics at all—but can still find ways of engaging in physical activity?
What would be your three top tips for someone looking to maximize their emotional and physical health and fitness?
- Get started anywhere, anytime, anyhow; just get started. Talk about it, share it, see it in the larger plan of your life.
- The link is always what you think, so be sure you check your thinking, catch your irrational thoughts, challenge them and replace them with rational, accurate, logical and reasonable thinking.
- Have intentions that are achievable daily, and remember TANB.E = There are no barriers. Ever
Where do you think are the key areas that the health and fitness industry is going wrong, and how do we change things for the better?
Simply put, the gymnasium is yesterday, the “medial fitness center” is today and tomorrow. It’ll be the optimal health center, staffed by well-rounded, collaboratively-minded fitness coaches, who work well with dieticians, physicians, mental health colleagues, nurses, physical therapists, and others. We ought to be results-driven, not simply concerned with breaking a sweat.
The gyms need to be more service-oriented, not simply space-and-equipment-oriented, with more focus on lifestyle habits, and the wheel of wellness offerings. The fitness industry has focused too much on celebrity, appearance, size, body, and not enough on health. The industry has focused too much on sales and not enough on service. The industry has focused too much on “be like me” instead of “how can I help you find your best you?”
We have to stop with the media hype headlines that do a disservice to the underlying science of fitness and behavior change. Fitness industry professionals can go a long way in pointing out the inaccuracy of headlines that poorly summarize research. The same thing goes for following the money in research. Those who sponsor it or speak for it sometimes color the findings.
Michael R. Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, where he wrote his thesis on the psychological aspects of obesity. His career includes serving as the Chief Psychologist for Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and as the founding Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He served on the faculty of UCSD’s School of Medicine, Dept. of Psychiatry.
He provides behavior science coaching to business leaders, entrepreneurs, athletes, individuals, families and fitness organizations to reach new levels of success and significance in their professional and personal lives. Dr. Mantell is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Council on Active Aging, the Chief Consultant for Behavior Science for the Premier Fitness Camp at Omni La Costa, a presenter for Rancho La Puerta, and served as the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise.
He is a best-selling author of three books including the 25th Anniversary updated edition of his 1988 original “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, P.S. It’s All Small Stuff.” He is listed is listed in the 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”