How a Sandcastle and Neuroscience Can Teach You to Love Exercising Again


Listen, it’s no surprise to anyone that maintaining a regular exercise routine can be a struggle. But did you know that some of the main reasons for this are our own attitudes and the perspectives we hold? In this blog post, I will go deeper into why this is (hint: it has to do with your brain’s neuroscience) and also offer hands-on solutions (using a sandcastle analogy), which you can start applying today.

Why am I writing about this? It has everything to do with everyday challenges coaching clients face.  Although my clients hire me to coach them to solve a specific problem, they rarely start off with wanting to tackle improving their health.  Yes, this is another example of how we struggle putting ourselves on our to-do lists (CLICK HERE for last week’s article on this topic). However, coaching clients do change their focus as coaching sessions progress. The more time they invest in figuring out what they truly need to feel successful in life and work, the more they discover that their health and wellness is at it’s core. About 99% of the time, somewhere along the coaching engagement, the conversation inevitably lands on the topic of taking better care of one’s health. This includes exercising of course, as well as nutrition, mindfulness, and receiving social support.  How about you? Would you benefit from more of that?


What would you want to talk about if you had a personal coach? Would exercising be on your list?


What I have also found is that many folks once used to exercise regularly, but somewhere along the line, they dropped this habit. They started prioritizing what felt like more pressing tasks: starting a new business, having a family, moving to another location and other life events. Their stress level went up, but their previous ways of dealing with the stress (by exercising) was not there to catch them. The more overwhelmed they feel by life, the less likely they tend to return to the activities which could relieve this. But they remember how great they felt when they did exercise regularly. And they miss feeling that way. They want to feel strong, empowered and confident again. And they want to look their best again! And why not. They, and you, deserve it.


Can you relate?


Others, never really managed to crack the exercise code. Somewhere along the way, they convinced themselves that being active was no longer something they wanted to do. And I say “no longer” because as children, we all had the ingrained need to move and be active. I have yet to see a child who does not enjoy some type of physical activity, like running in the park, splashing in the ocean, running in the snow, climbing things. Somewhere as we grow up, we let go of the sense of the pure pleasure of simply moving.


Somewhere along the way, physical exercise stops being fun and becomes a chore.


How do we feel about chores? We either avoid them (flight) or grind our teeth and bear through them (fight).  Take an example of one of my best friends from elementary school. She and I used to spend every possible minute of our day running around. Full disclosure, we wanted to be like horses. We ran trails in the back of our school, we “steeple chased” over logs, ran in the forest, down the street or in the water. You name it. Just running. Fast. But now, many years later, if you ask her about exercising she will say “it’s just not for me” – although it was in her core until she was 15 years old! Want to know a secret? I believe it still is. And that she could change her perspective about exercising to a more positive one once again.


So, how can you change the way you look at being active? It’s actually not that hard.



In coaching, I often talk about the concept of “perspectives”. With that, I am referring to “the way we look at a given situation or experience”. It’s the lens through which we see things.  We can see any given experience in many different ways.


And the way we see something directly influences whether we will be successful with it.


The perspective we take on is very powerful. The problem is, that we often look at things from a perspective, which does not serve us.  In doing so, it becomes almost impossible to achieve what we truly want. Sound counterintuitive? It is. Until you understand a little bit more about the neuroscience of the brain that is.


The neuroscience of our brain can help explain some of our behaviour


The reptilian brain (our first and oldest brain consisting of the brain stem and the cerebellum) is hard-wired to look for threats and danger. It developed over 100 million years ago and is responsible for our survival.  The actions and emotions that spring from the reptilian brain do so automatically, without us thinking about it. It is constantly scanning the environment to be ready to react with a fight or flight type of response. It’s purpose is to keep us alive and therefore procreate, hence making more humans who react the same way. For example, those who did not eat the red poisonous mushroom (because they saw it as a threat) survived. While the others. Well, they did not.


This “old brain” still steers our actions … and it naturally focus us on the negative over the positive. It leads us to take on negative perspectives (or lenses), especially when it comes to us changing our behaviours. And this also includes tasks which inadvertently would be good for us! Yup, you guessed it – exercising and other healthy behaviours. Crazy right? Instead of embracing healthy activities, we show “flight behaviours” like avoiding them, procrastinating, delaying getting started, not talking about our goals with others etc. Sound familiar? Can you relate?


Why would our brain have us think this way?  This part of our brain is very animalistic and primitive. The reptilian brain’s main function is immediate survival.  It cares only about the lowest common denominator. Are you alive right now? Good. Let’s not change anything. It does not care if we are fulfilled or even happy. Being alive right is good enough. Job done. Doing something different from the routine? Well, that is questionable, isn’t it? This part of our brain would rather not take the risk. Run a marathon? No. Lift weight? Too strenuous. Go surfing? What? Swim in the ocean? Kayak? Heck, no. You get the picture. As you can guess, this creates a paradox when it comes to doing things differently in our life. This part of our brain interprets any possible changes in the most negative way, because it is a threat to the status quo.


Our reptilian brain can work against us when it comes to changing behavior  


What to do? Luckily, our brains did evolve over time and added additional areas and layers. For example, the area responsible for emotions (the limbic system) and an area for higher level processes (the neocortex), which is tasked with logic, reasoning and creative thinking. And this is where our ability to make good choices lives. We have to actively choose to listen to that part of our reasoning brain and not our fight or flight driven reptilian brain.


When we access our rational and creative part of our brain, we have choices in how we look at things, and consequently what we do.


By now you must be wondering what all of this has to do with sandcastles! Here the big reveal: I am going to use it to illustrate another way of looking at exercising.  I know this sounds far-fetched; just bear with me a few seconds longer. Let this appeal to your playful side.

Want to play along and try this out? Here we go …


Looking at being active and exercising from the sandcastle perspective:

  • Connect to the bigger purpose. Think of exercising from the bigger purpose it represents versus the actual activity itself. A great sandcastle is not just a heap of sand.  It is a miniature kingdom! A place where anything is possible. A magic home for fairy tales. Or a martian stronghold on a foreign planet. It’s what ever it needs to be. In the same vein, lifting weights is not just a bicep curl or a sit up, but its you sculpting your body into a strong, lean entity. More resilient against both physical and mental “attacks”, like stress, depression and overwhelm.


  • Tackle it as a team. It helps to have a team to make a good sandcastle. One person keeps the sand wet, the other fills buckets, the third is responsible for the creative design. Or maybe just one person builds it while the other cheers them on. The same applies to exercising. Whether you exercise with another person or simply lean on the mental support from a close friend, using a team approach works.  Many do find exercising with others more fun and a better experience all around. They end up doing activities they normally would never have done. Like ride their bike to a different destination. Go kayaking Saturday mornings. Ride to a coffee shop. Hike a mountain they have not been to. You get it.


  • Be in the moment. A great sandcastle often comes about very spontaneously, in the moment. It just flows. So can your experience of exercising. What is possible for your exercise routine if you were more in the moment? spontaneity or even mindfulness may be what your exercise regime is missing.


  • Enjoy the seasons. Each season brings it’s own fun activities. Most of us would choose to build a sandcastle in the warmer months, but a snow castle could be a winter alternative, right? Let the seasons inspire your exercise routine. Swim in a lake in the summer; skate on it in the winter. Hike in the spring to fall; snow shoe the same trails once the snow has fallen. The gym is a great place to go when the weather outside is not playing along (either too hot or too cold). But there are so many other activities you can do indoors, like rock climb, yoga, spinning, boot camps, tennis, swimming. And the more you mix it up, the less likely you will have repetitive strain injuries. And the more stimulation your brain will benefit from as well.


  • Head outside. It goes without saying that a sand castle really should be made outside. A lot of people who embrace exercising say the same thing: They love that it takes them outside. It is a great way to explore our surroundings, whether it’s nature or the city. I was training for a half marathon once with a running club, but my work schedule put me in another city the weekend of “the longest run”. I really had hoped to do that one with my running group! I felt discouraged at first. But as it turned out, I ended up sight-seeing most of Portland – running 21 km covers a lot of ground. I even bumped into other runners along the way and had great conversations with them as we shard part of our route.


  • Use the elements. Just like shells, seaweed, sticks and stones (heck even pieces of “garbage” like lids and cans) add flair, creativity and fun to a sandcastle, so can using elements in your surroundings with your workout. Travelling and staying in a hotel? Use the chairs in your room, the suitcase stand, the desk, the bed etc as props. Take a long an exercise band and you are good to do your resistance workout right in your room. Are you outside in the park? Use the benches to do triceps dips or step-ups, the playground as an obstacle course, the sand for barefoot sprints.


I hope you had as much fun reading this post as I did writing it. And I hope you will benefit from some of the tips along the way. As always, reach out if you are at all curious about working together to help you reach you fitness … or any other goals.

Let’s work together to create the life you want! On your schedule and your terms.

Click here to contact me.



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