create the lifestyle change program that works for you

Becoming an Exerciser: It’s a Process


Remember that time you woke up one morning and decided to start exercising every day from here on out and you did it?  Me neither.  Unless you are a born athlete who hasn’t stopped moving since you were a kid, you probably struggle with getting started and staying active.  So many of us do!

How do those active people do it?  How did they start?  How do they keep it up?  Why can’t you be like them?  Well, I’m here to tell you, you can.  You may never go to the Olympics, but you can be someone who’s active and feels confident.  It’s possible you have a chronic condition that makes it seem un-doable, but that’s a topic for another post.  I will leave that for later when I tell you all the wonderful things exercising can do for your symptoms.  But for now, let’s focus on what we CAN do to get going.

Now, we all have to start somewhere, and there is a way of thinking about where we are in the process.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say it’s about the when and the what rather than where.

What stage are you in?

“Stages of Change” [1] is a concept that relates to motivation at points in time.

This is saying you are in “Precontemplation” if you’re thinking “I’m not even interested in making any type of change right now”.

You are in “Contemplation” when you start to think “I need to make a change and am interested in doing it sometime in the next six months”.

When you are in “Preparation” you are starting to take steps to make the change in question – e.g., researching, planning action steps, etc.

When you start doing something, you are in “Action”.  If you keep it up, you stay in this stage for about six months.

When you hit that six month point, you are in “Maintenance”, where your task is to figure out how to stick with it not fall back into old habits.

So this covers the “when” that I mentioned before.

OK, you’re probably thinking “so what?  How does that help me?”.  Read on to see how.

What do those fit and active people have that others don’t?  A toolbelt full of stuff – and they use it.  The “Processes of Change” [1] are things in that toolbelt.  Studies have shown as people move up through the stages, they tend to think about and do things differently.  This is some of the “what” of the model.  Let’s just go with tools.

Some tools are thoughts:

The reasons exercise is good; the reasons remaining inactive is bad; thinking about how my inaction can affect the people I love, my job, etc.;  looking for ways exercise is encouraged around me; thinking “I can”, etc.  We can call these “Mental tools”.  Studies have shown that people who start doing this regularly have gotten unstuck from the precontemplation stage.

People who have gotten the wheels turning and are starting to take action gradually begin to do different things.

Some tools are behaviors:

Substituting the new activity for bad habits (going for a walk instead of watching tv);  using social support (exercising with a friend, a group fitness class, etc.); planning rewards for small achievements;  controlling environmental triggers (putting workout clothes somewhere accessible, giving that computer/tablet a hard shutdown, etc.);  continuing the “I can” self-talk, and making commitments (scheduling it in and working other things around it, etc.).

Research shows that people who stick with it are using the behavioral tools more than the mental tools [2].  Seems obvious, I know.  Is there any other way of looking at these processes other than saying “people use them”?  Yes, there is.  Notice I never said earlier how many tools people use, how often, or if they rely more on some than others.  At the University of North Texas (2002), researchers looked at how these tools are put to use more closely in people who manage to make it to the “Maintenance Stage”.

How to use the tools

In the 2002 study, they used a scale that identifies what tools people used and how often [3].  This 40-item scale had four everyday examples of five “mental tools” and five “behavioral tools”.  By looking at ratings (1=never to 5=repeatedly) of how often subjects were using each tool, they were able to calculate a few new things:  For example,

1) How many tools are they carrying around in that belt? (# of processes in the scale they say they use regardless of how often)

2) How often do they use the tool belt in general? (add up how often they use all the tools)

3) Do they have a few go-to tools they use the most, or do they use them all about equally?

What did they find?

Is More Better?


If someone has a tool belt loaded with tools, how much does that help?  In the early stages,  having a variety of positive thoughts about exercise does seem to help.  So, early in the process, think about it and think about it often.  Read articles (like this one), look at motivational memes regularly, whatever you can do to get it to the forefront of your mind on a regular basis. You don’t have to re-read the same thing over and over or think the same thoughts over and over.  As long as something is going on in your head, you are moving in the right direction.  Here’s a meme to get you started:

What if you have already gotten moving?  How should you the tools?  If you use many, but none of them often, it’s not as helpful.  For the people who were already exercising, having more strategies  doesn’t necessarily predict success.  So what does predict it?

Find a few strategies that work and invest yourself in those!  Subjects who used lots of strategies often, with some very often (having a few go-to tools) had more confidence and kept it up better.  Two tools in particular stand out.  Planning ahead [4], and thinking about consequences of returning to old habits [2] predict successful maintenance.

Think about all those benefits.  Plan it into your schedule, find the strategies that work for you, and remind yourself why you’re doing it. Someday you will look back and realize you did it!

[1] Prochaska, J.O. & DiClemente, C.C. (1983). Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: Toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, 390-395.

[2] Marcus, B.H., Simkin, L.R., Rossi, J.R., & Pinto, B. (1996). Longitudinal shifts in employees’ stages and processes of exercise behavior change. American Journal of Health Promotion, 10(3), 195-200.

[3] Marcus & Rossi, et. al, (1992)

[4] Kendzierski & Whitaker (1997)