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GET PSYCHED FOR FITNESS

 

by Christie Aschwanden

 

" Once you discover what’s holding you back, says a top psychologist, you’ll never quit exercising again !! "

 

Driving home from her job as office manager at a Richardson, Texas, landscaping company, Linda Calvert wearily navigates a maze of snarled traffic. Calvert’s car vibrates to the beat of a stereo blaring nearby; she switches lanes to escape a tailgater. A headache threatens as she squints at the glare beaming off the car ahead of her. After hustling to work at seven this morning, Calvert spent eight hours fielding a stream of customer calls. She’s still 45 minutes from home.

 

Overcome with relief as she walks through the front door, Calvert faces her first free moment all day. Few would fault her for slumping on the couch with a snack and the remote control. But she does something unexpected: She laces up her walking shoes instead. "Exercise has become automatic for me," she says. "I just don’t feel right if I don’t do it."

 

Calvert wouldn’t strike anyone as a jock. "I’ll be honest: Exercise is still not my favorite thing to do," says the solidly built 51-year-old. She has no history of being active, no high school memories of athletic glory to sustain her, no lifelong rhythm of daily walking to help push her out the door. Yet she means it when she says, "I have no doubt I’ll keep it up. It’s become a habit."

 

To put Calvert’s habit in context, some 25 percent of Americans are sedentary; nearly 60 percent don’t exercise enough to improve health. Surveys suggest half the people who make New Year’s resolutions to start working out this January will give up by June. In spite of those odds, Calvert has done it: She has been walking for a half hour five times a week for two years, and she shows no signs of stopping.

 

How? Calvert adopted a program of "life change" designed by psychologist James Prochaska, head of the Health Promotion Partnership at the University of Rhode Island. Prochaska’s model is one of psychology’s great success stories; its unprecedented power to break addiction and alter behavior has been proven in hundreds of studies over the last 15 years, garnering Prochaska international acclaim. Yet the fitness world has just recently begun to incorporate Prochaska’s ideas. Chances are, the trainers at Calvert’s local gym haven’t heard of him. Calvert only stumbled onto the program by volunteering for an exercise study in Dallas.

 

Prochaska’s methods (outlined in his book, Changing for Good, Avon, $13) are startlingly simple. He invented nothing; he merely observed people who successfully overcame intractable behaviors: smoking, addiction, overeating, and inactivity. Prochaska found they all progressed through the same series of six stages along the way. What’s more, he discovered that by identifying a person’s stage, he could prescribe techniques to prod her to the next, until she could make a permanent change.

 

The study Calvert joined, conducted by scientists at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, produced numerous examples of how such a strategy can work. Helen Feldman was stuck in Prochaska’s second stage, contemplation, when she signed up. She had spent years thinking about working out. "I was always a ‘gonna,’ not a ‘doer,’" says the petite 56-year-old. She knew exercise would make her healthier, yet after several attempts, she always ended up back on the couch. "I joined a gym and told myself I was going to go for an hour four times per week. But all of a sudden it would be the end of the day and I hadn’t gone. I was disappointed in myself, but I thought, ‘Well, maybe some people aren’t meant to be active,’" recalls Feldman.

 

She felt this way, says Prochaska, because she made a common error: She skipped the stage between contemplation and action – preparation. Without a detailed plan of attack that takes into account your schedule and abilities, he says, the likelihood that you’ll stick with a regimen is slim.

 

Cooper Institute counselor Sheila Reynolds sat down with Feldman to write up specific goals. Feldman started with two-minute walks, a far more realistic approach than an hour at the gym. "Those walks made me see that I really could do this. It seemed so easy, so I started challenging myself to see how many I could do each day," she says.

 

Feldman’s breakthrough in getting from one stage to the next may seem less than earth-shattering, but it contains a subtle lesson: You can’t go from spectator to athlete in one day. Nobody changes overnight, says Prochaska. "We haven’t been able to find those folks," he says. "When you assess people who say they suddenly made a big change, you find they’d been thinking about it for a long time."

 

That’s a concept our nation’s exercise experts have yet to grasp. By relying on slogans designed to jolt people into immediate action, the health and fitness community – from physicians to personal trainers to makers of running shoes – is essentially asking us to go cold turkey on our indolent lifestyle. " ‘Just do it’ is a great message if you’re already doing it," says Prochaska. But more than 80 percent of sedentary Americans are contemplators, like Feldman, or are in Prochaska’s first stage, pre-contemplation: The idea that they should be active hasn’t even occurred to them. For these two groups, the current advice to "Get some exercise" can be a turnoff, a recipe for disaster, or both, as Feldman discovered.

 

Proof is emerging that Prochaska’s message works for anyone. James Sallis, an exercise psychologist at San Diego State University, and colleagues have designed a system doctors can use to determine a patient’s stage. Doctors then give the advice tailored specifically to a person’s mind-set. For those who doubt they need to exercise, pamphlets that explain the benefits in detail are available. If a patient knows she should work out but can’t seem to get motivated, the physician helps her choose a specific workout and pick a start date. In early results, six weeks after an initial doctor visit, more than 50 percent of the patients were regularly active compared to only 10 percent who had been told to "just do it."

 

Alicia Alvarez, 44, was drawn to the Cooper Institute study because of her father’s health. He was battling diseases that exercise could help fight: heart disease and diabetes. But despite her familial risk, Alvarez felt she couldn’t spare the time; she was studying for a psychology and sociology degree while working full time at an insurance company in Dallas.

 

Alvarez isn’t alone in citing time as her major obstacle. People stuck in the contemplation stage say it’s the number one reason they don’t work out, according to Prochaska. Often they just haven’t considered what an excellent use of time exercise is, he says. The payoff of heart protection is great, but there are at least 50 other benefits to regular activity. More immediate rewards, such as stress release and increased energy, can help convince someone who is run ragged daily. After her counselor at the Cooper Institute filled in the picture, Alvarez was ready to make the time. Then she realized a solution had been staring her in the face all along: Her college offered dance aerobics and weight-training classes. She knew she wouldn’t skip them since they counted towards her degree.

 

Searching for solutions is key to the preparation stage, says Prochaska. For Feldman, settling on two-minute walks revved her engine, readying her for the ultimate goal of walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week. But time was still a concern: Where would she find 2½ hours a week? As part of her preparation, she had vowed to make exercise a higher priority, granting it the same amount of attention as, say, her errands. The result? Her time worries evolved into a new perspective on her schedule. "Now I see opportunities to walk all around me. Yesterday as I was out shopping with my husband, I realized that our next stop was just down the street, so I walked over and met him there," Feldman says. When she goes to the grocery store, she walks every aisle before she grabs a cart.

 

As Calvert journeyed from the preparation stage to action, her adviser at the Cooper Institute suggested she think of ways to stay positive. "I put up notes on the refrigerator and around the house to encourage myself," she says. Reinforcement is crucial to getting through this six-month stage, says Prochaska. Maintaining a good outlook will nurture your fragile new habit. Rewarding yourself helps as well, he says. One week Calvert promised herself a movie if she walked every day. Other times she indulged herself by buying books or magazines.

 

Calvert also made the difficult decision to enlist outside help. Many people hesitate to announce their plans for fear of failure, says psychologist James Sallis, but family and friends can really help. Calvert recruited a cheering section that included her husband and a close girlfriend. Knowing people would be checking on her progress got her through days when her own drive failed her. And Calvert’s husband literally goes the extra mile for her. "Some evenings I’ll come home and complain about being too tied to walk, and he’ll volunteer to go with me."

 

For all three women, the need for motivational tricks faded as they became fitter. When Feldman broke her elbow, her speedy recovery thrilled her doctor, and he told her that walking had helped. "It’s really given me a new attitude," she says. "Last Thanksgiving my sister-in-law said she noticed the difference. She said I had an air of self-confidence now that wasn’t there before."

 

Alvarez says her exercise classes actually help balance the demands of school and work. "I leave there feeling revitalized. I absolutely need this for stress."

 

Though Calvert found it rough going at times, she made it past the six months of action and into the maintenance stage. Now walking is part of her life. It would take a serious blow – an injury of severe emotional trauma – to derail her habit. Once she was sick and missed an entire week, but she didn’t let that discourage her. She figures one week, or even a month is small change if she’s in it for a lifetime.

 

Calvert doesn’t walk for exercise; she is a walker. The distinction is crucial, and that’s the mental shift Prochaska wants people to make in this stage. Not everyone sails through the program the first time. But once you consider yourself an exerciser, slipping back a stage or two is no disaster, he says. You’ll know how to get back on track.

 

Feldman gained the maintenance mind-set some time back and now has reached what once seemed impossible: Prochaska’s pinnacle, the termination stage. That grim sobriquet is a leftover from the program’s addiction-treatment beginnings. (After all, a drug habit is something you do want to terminate.) Applied to Feldman’s past, it fits perfectly. Her sedentary days are behind her. Exercise is now an inseparable part of her, as natural as brushing her teeth.

 

"When I started walking, I went for months without skipping a day because I was so afraid that if I stopped, I might not be able to start again," Feldman says. Finally, I had a revelation. I know that I may not get my full session in today, but I’ll make it up tomorrow. I’m not so hard on myself anymore. I just keep it up. That’s what really matters."

 

OBSTACLE NUMBER 1:

 

Are You Truly Convinced It’s Important?

 

You plan to start exercising. Really. But you’re not sure how or where to begin and time is an issue. You’re in what psychologist James Prochaska calls the contemplation stage. People who have started and abandoned exercise programs often get stuck here.

 

Solution: MAKE THE CASE TO YOURSELF

 

Envision a new you. Imagine the clothes you’ll be able to wear, the energy you’ll have, the confidence you’ll gain. Now imagine how you’ll look and feel if you don’t start.

 

Add up all the pluses. Working out has more than 50 proven benefits from the long-term (warding off disease) to the immediately motivating (weight loss, stress release). (For a complete list, E-mail thehealthclub.com.)

 

Rethink the timing. Ask yourself this: If you weren’t walking or lifting weights, what would you be doing? Be honest. Watching TV? Reading the paper?

 

See the possibilities. You’ll happily join friends for a bike ride. On a hike you’ll have enough stamina to climb the trail to the peak. "Imagine yourself taking part in life rather than watching it pass by," says Prochaska.

 

 

 

OBSTACLE NUMBER 2:

 

Do You Have a Realistic Plan?

 

You decide to start exercising – this afternoon. Whoa, Nelly. You really need to think things through first. Many people skip the preparation stage, jumping right into workouts instead, says Prochaska. "It’s a big reason people fail."

 

Solution: PLOT YOUR FUTURE

 

Pick a date. Choose a definite start date within the next month. Don’t put off that date for anything – weather, social obligations, work.

 

Set three goals. How often and how long will you exercise the first month, in six months, and a year from now? Start with amounts you can easily manage, even as little as two two-minute sessions a day.

 

Write it all down. And go through all the details: What kind of workout most appeals to you? Where and when will you do it? How will it fit into your schedule? What are the potential roadblocks (foul weather, vacations), and how will you deal with them (buy a treadmill or join a gym; stay at a hotel that has workout facilities)?

 

Go public. Let everyone know that you’re starting an exercise program, and don’t be afraid to tell them how they can help.

 

 

 

OBSTACLE NUMBER 3:

 

Do You Know How to Make Exercise a Habit?

 

You’re working out, but will it stick? That’s natural. You’re in the action stage. Getting through the first six months will be tricky. In the next phase, maintenance, only an injury or a severe emotional blow can come between you and exercise.

 

Solution: OUTWIT YOUR WEAKNESSES

 

Take charge of your environment. If you plan to work out in the morning, lay out your gym clothes the night before. Should television’s siren call prove too strong, move an exercise machine into the TV room, or tape the remote control to the handle of the jump rope.

 

Reward yourself. "If I stick to my plan for a week, I can treat myself to a manicure. After two weeks, I can get a massage." And so on.

 

Find a work out partner. The more support (and guilt) the better.

 

AFTER SIX MONTHS If calamity threatens to derail you, remember that your workouts can help you cope. Exercise boosts confidence, fights depression, and speeds healing.

 

Repeat: "I am an exerciser." Researchers are finding that "exercise identity" is key to making your habit stick. Forever.

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