I’ve recently been asked for tips on making attainable and sustainable New Year’s fitness resolutions, as part of a story for inclusion within a lifestyle website. Bullet-pointed ‘must-do’s’ seem a simplified and perhaps sophomoric way to approach the topic of exercise adherence. The truth is, headlines sell: “5 Simple Tips for year-long fitness maintenance!” and “Make those New Year’s resolutions stick!” would likely yield more clicks than “Let’s address your motivational climate and perception of control”. Neat titles sell. Acknowledging the need for sell-ability, I’ve put together, quite neatly and consumer culture-friendlily, 5 tips that may enhance the likelihood of sustained physical activity. And for your consumption before December, no less! You’ve a full month to digest before putting it into action.
- I’ll start with a personal anecdote: an older man, approaching the 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, recently confessed to me, a newly married man at the time, his secret to marital success: “Keep her guessing. Keep her on her toes. One day, return home from work with a rose, or a nice shirt, or a piece of jewelry, or a loving embrace. Never fall into a long-term routine. The possibility of surprise fortifies the relationship, and keeps it lasting”. While this is phenomenal relationship advice, it got me thinking of its relevance with exercise. The human body & mind both respond most favorably to regimens that promote variation; life requires a bit of change to keep someone alert, fresh, and to keep one’s interest peaked. So, keep the body & the mind guessing, keep the activities fresh & creative. Continually challenge your body by switching up your routine every so often, say, every 2 months.
2. Set realistic goals. People tend to underestimate the difficulty of incorporating exercise into their lives, and tend to overestimate the immediacy of bodily change. When one thinks, “I’ll start exercising 6 days a week, and will lose 15 pounds by Valentine’s Day,” it’s an unsustainable recipe for disaster. Physical and mental change takes time. When, by Valentine’s Day, the weight isn’t off and exercise is only being performed biweekly, one’s self-efficacy and drive to continue trying weakens. Start with a more realistic expectation if you’re unaccustomed to setting fitness goals, like incorporating exercise only 2 or 3 days per week for a realistic period of time, like 20 minutes, giving yourself space to progress. And leave the outcome-oriented and essentially uncontrollable expectations (like how much weight one wants to lose) on the shelf. What is under the power of our own control is what we eat, how we move, how we think, how we respond to waves of fatigue or laziness. Understanding that patience is necessary, and keeping one’s focus on the ‘controllables’, is helpful.
3. The benefits of activity throughout the day were demonstrated in a study about fidgeting a few years back. Fidgeting has been linked to leanness and the lack of it to being overweight. Just being restless – standing, pacing, toe tapping – can burn about 350 calories a day, the study said. That can add up to 30 or 40 pounds per year. The novel ways that people fit exercise into their lives tend to be convenient as well as slimming. Jogging or walking briskly between errands, yoga in the shower, and, yes, varying levels of romantic intimacy are all ‘fidget-based’ (i.e. non-formal) workouts. Whatever it is, you want your exercise and physical activity to be fun and engaging – that’s most important.
4. Ask yourself, ‘Why?’ The reason you engage in exercise is significant. The most powerful motivator comes from within, or intrinsically: this is when an exerciser participates in an activity for the inherent pleasure of doing so, because it’s their personal choice (to feel good, to be healthier, for the enjoyment of the activity). When we work out for intrinsic reasons, we gain feelings of self-control; we do it for us; we determine our own behavior; we’re enjoying the moment because it’s fun. Those who are motivated extrinsically – driven by a desire to look like Fitness Magazine’s Miss July, to gain attention or receive external rewards, or for an ego boost – engage in exercise as a means to an end, to obtain something they want or to avoid realizing something they don’t desire. Those who adopt intrinsic motivators better maintain & adhere to exercise regimens. Remember ‘why’, every day.
5. The implications to lots of research are that rather than educational strategies, like teaching time-management skills, programs aiming at changing behavior and teaching techniques geared toward changing attitudes and perceptions of the role of exercise and changing one’s thoughts about exerciseis more impactful. Rather than dedicating energy figuring out how to carve out the appropriate time for exercise – which itself is exhausting – engage in some self-reflection and determine how you feel & think about exercise, and what healthier alternative approaches or attitudes you’re willing to adopt.
Happy New Year.