Tuesday, 14 July 2009

7 strategies for developing the exercise habit

I am a life long exerciser – I can honestly say that I have been exercising all of my adult life (some 20 years) and for a fair amount of my childhood too. During that time, my efforts have been consistent, regular and productive. As a result I have achieved a reasonable level of success in many sports ranging from rugby to trampolining, to athletics to rock climbing.

The one thing that has been a constant companion throughout this long training career is I have always needed to find ways to motivate my self. It has never been easy to drag my self into the gym at 6am, or out to run at 10pm but somehow, almost every time, I have done it.

Without realizing it, I made exercising a lifelong habit and now enjoy the fruits of those endeavors – above average muscle mass, lower than average body fat, sufficient strength for all everyday activities, muscular endurance which allows me to perform physical tasks for prolonged periods of time, adequate CV fitness that allows me to run about as far as I will ever want to, not to mention lowered incidence of illness and disease compared to my peers, high energy levels and the luxury of knowing I will probably enjoy these benefits long into my twilight years.

People often say to me “oh but it’s so easy for you!” but I can assure you it isn’t. Training never gets any easier – that’s a fallacy! You merely get fitter and work harder. I feel the same discomfort as a beginner exerciser, get out of breath in the same way a unfit person would and weights feel heavy to me as they would to a person with less strength. I just have a greater work capacity that allows me to work at higher levels of output – however, it’s still as hard as the first time I ran around the block as an eight year old training for my first sports day. And yes – that feeling of sore muscles beginners get after starting a new exercise routine (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS) – I get that too … at least a couple of times a week!

Everyday, there are things I would rather be doing than sweating in the gym or panting out on the road, like watching TV, reading, sleeping, meeting my friends or just chilling out eating junk food…but the difference between me and a non-exerciser is that I “just do it” to quote Nike. Exercise has become a habit and a vital part of my day just like eating, sleeping and breathing.

The hardest part about exercise is getting off the couch, or getting out the front door, or away from what ever place you are drawn to by an invisible gravitational pull designed to stop you being fit and healthy. Once you’ve broken away from that place – the rest is easy…or relatively anyway!

So – how do we establish a routine that will eventually become a habit? Well, I have a number of suggestions which may help.

Remember, it takes 3-6 months of concerted, regular effort for something to become habitual, so don’t go expecting any quick fixes but with some application of effort and, dare I say it, discipline, exercise adherence is a real possibility and developing the skills to be self motivated are yours for the taking…we just need to get through that first few months…

1) Set goals.
Why do you want to get fit? Is it to lose weight, look good on the beach, drop a clothing size, be healthier? get stronger? What ever it is, write it down. Show it to people, tell people about you goal, explain what you are trying to achieve. The point of this exercise is to give you focus. Every workout missed or every day off your healthy eating plan puts you a day further away from achieving what you want from your time spent exercising. Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable in a reasonable time frame. If necessary break your main goal into “micro” goals that you can tick off on a regular basis, e.g.

Main goals
Micro goals
Lose 2 stone
Lose ½ pound a week
Run a marathon
Eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day

Exercise 5 times a week

Get 7-8 hours sleep a night

2) Write a pro and con decision list.
What have you got to gain versus what have you got to lose. If you ever feel your resolve waning, revisit this document and remind yourself what you have given up in return for all the benefits you are working towards, e.g.

Look better
Half an hour less sleep
Lose weight
Have to be organized
Feel fitter
Drink less alcohol
Have more energy
Eat plainer foods

After reviewing the above lists it should be apparent that the minor cons are outweighed by the greater pros and should serve as a reminder that the decision made is a worthwhile one.

3) Make a plan and stick to it.
Getting fit is a journey, and to successfully complete a journey you often need a map. By planning how to get from A to B, we can prepare for change and give ourselves a route to follow which will allow us to progress along our chosen path without having to worry about losing our way or getting distracted. Remember the old adage – “prior preparation prevents poor performance!” To help keep on the straight and narrow, consider the following points…

Plan your workout times – treat them as appointments and stick to them.
Have a back up plan in case you are unable to exercise at the time you wanted to – if you cant go to the gym, what can you do instead? If it’s raining, where else can you workout? Cover your bases! Have alternatives ready to cover as many eventualities as you can envisage.
Plan your weekly food intake and shop accordingly. One of the truths of diet and nutrition is that if you have junk food in your cupboard, you will eat it. As a result, make sure that you have plenty of healthy food in your cupboards and that includes snacks.
Make sure you carry adequate food and water with you so you don’t have to rely on grabbing a snack at work – prepare much of your days food the night before
Tell other people about your plans so they don’t accidentally interfere with your efforts to adopt a new healthy lifestyle.

4) Recruit a network of supporters.
Why suffer alone!?!? Ask friends, neighbors, family and friends to assist you in your goals. Seek out like minded people to act as training partners, get support from those closest to you, join one of the many web based groups that can offer both support and information to help you on your way. The main point is that you don’t have to “go it alone”. For some people this might mean hiring a personal trainer, or joining a group exercise class or it could just mean you work out with a neighbor. Whatever support method you choose, your efforts will be easier with someone else in your corner.

5) Keep accurate training and diet logs.
Write it down! Nothing motivates like success…but to judge success we need to see where we started. By keeping track of workout performance, dietary trends and physical measurements we can see when we improve. Sometimes we fail to see our improvements because they are, on a day to day basis, so small but overtime, these small improvements will add up to noticeable changes in body composition, bodyweight, fitness levels etc. Often, someone who hasn’t seen you for a while will comment on your dramatic weight loss or improved muscle tone – they haven’t seen you in a while so the changes seem great whereas to you, seeing yourself in the mirror on a daily basis may not have spotted much in the way of changes at all.

6) Don’t be afraid to fall off the wagon.
Even with the very best planning, goal setting and support network sometimes things just go wrong – life gets in the way. The key when this happens is to not let it phase you for too long and to pick up where you left off as soon as possible. These disruptions in routine are not failures, nor are they enough to undo all of your previous good works but unless you jump back on the wagon as soon as possible, they can be the start of the slippery slope back to our previous physical state and a lot of hard work wasted. Learn from whatever caused this disruption to your planned routine and take measures to try to minimize the chances of a similar disruptions happening again. Its kind of cheesy but some say that to FAIL is the First Action in Learning and so long as we take something positive away from a failure, then it was not a wasted opportunity.

7) Choose things you like.
By using the above 6 points, we can make exercise adherence much more likely, but if we choose activities we don’t enjoy or foods we don’t like, it becomes increasingly doubtful we will succeed in reaching our fitness or diet goals. There are many options for us to choose from and it is vital we chose things we are going to enjoy as much as possible. Why make things harder than they need to be? The old saying “it doesn’t have to be hell to be healthy” is a good one to adopt as a diet and exercise mantra. So…don’t like running? Try cycling. Not so keen on the gym? Join an exercise class. Don’t like fruit? Make fresh fruit smoothies or juices. There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, so spread you net wide and select activities and foods that slot as seamlessly into your lifestyle as possible.

So, in conclusion: set goals, note down decision change pros and cons, make a plan and stick to it, recruit a support network, keep food and training diaries, don’t worry if you make mistakes (try, try and try again!), and choose foods and activities you enjoy. Following these simple guidelines won’t turn you into an exercise addict overnight but will help you to become a habitual, self motivated exerciser and lead you towards a long and productive health & fitness lifestyle.

Patrick Dale

1 comment:

  1. Really good stuff - will pass on to my PT clients.