The Human Condition: The quitter's guide to fitness

Most people want to get fit. Very few make it. If you want to stay the course, help is at hand. Eleanor Bailey offers a step-by-step plan
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
People who exercise regularly are eight times less likely to die prematurely, 50 per cent more likely to give up smoking and 200 per cent more likely to eat healthily. They have more energy, higher self-esteem and feel healthier. So why is it that 70 per cent of people who join gyms give up within seven months?

Because exercise is boring, sweaty, time-consuming, painful and it doesn't work quickly enough, that's why. Quitters - and that's most of us - would rather go to the pub. And anyway, you don't really live longer if you exercise, it just feels like it.

So how do we overcome the problem? Fundamentally, psychologists believe that quitters get off on the wrong foot. In their initial enthusiasm they plunge straight into new behaviour without laying down proper foundations for how to cope when the novelty wears off. If a quitter wants to stick at it, they need to look more closely, more scientifically at their "change behaviour".

The seminal model of behavioural change - a six-point scale - was drawn up by psychologists in 1987. It can be applied to any behaviour change - giving up smoking, losing weight or, of course, taking up exercise. Everyone can be placed somewhere on the scale; we can slip back or move on or stay in the same stage. By understanding the model, and identifying the stage you have reached, you can quit quitting forever.

The first stage is "precontemplation". Precontemplators don't give exercise a thought. They have no interest but also no guilt. They may not be fit, but they're happy (and they won't be reading this guide). Stage two is "contemplation". Contemplators are miserable; they want to exercise but their desire for change is non-specific - they just feel dissatisfied. The next stage is one of "preparation". Preparers know they want to exercise and have taken some steps to get going. They may have invested money in equipment, found out class times, put a date in the diary. They are ready to go. Next comes stage four: "action". This is the optimistic, "it's all going to be wonderful" stage. These individuals have been exercising for a month or so and feel like they've cracked it. Often, however, excessive or badly planned action leads to burnout; they then slip back rather than make the transition to stage five, "maintenance". Many exercisers never get beyond this stage, which kicks in about two months after they start. Maintainers exercise regularly but are still at risk of relapse. A change of routine, an illness or any other distraction could end the fragile habit. But if they manage to stick with it they will, eventually, reach the ultimate goal: "termination", so-called because no more change is necessary. Exercise has now become part of the individual's life.

Using the interviews and psychologist's advice below, identify the stage you have reached, tailor your behaviour to suit, and quit quitting. But remember: it only takes one psychologist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb really has to want to change.

1 PRECONTEMPLATION

Andy Lelean

Golf club administrator

Age: 27

Height: 5ft 10in

Weight: 10 and a half / 11 stone

"I've had a similar build ever since I can remember. I'm slim but not especially muscular. I've been dealt a good hand health-wise - I can eat what I like and not put on weight. There's not much incentive to go to the gym if you're just doing it for the sake of it. As long as I'm above average fitness for the population, and I think I am, then I have no real desire to keep fit.

"I am influenced by people around me so when I was at university and I was with people who ran, I went occasionally. It did give me a feeling of well-being, but I'm not going to start going to the gym just for that. I'd rather come home and relax and watch TV. I sometimes go rollerblading because it's fun, but exercise is just not something I consciously do."

Rob Shannon, health behaviour expert, on Precontemplation:

Andy does not wish to formalise an exercise plan so he is in the "precontemplation" phase. However much we could benefit from taking more exercise many of us are just not ready and some may never be. Telling a person they must start is not true and is seldom going to promote change. Andy is the only one who can make the decision. I would like to know what would have to happen for him to consider change. I would suggest to him that the benefits of activity extend well beyond the realms of controlling weight and also that body weight is not the only indicator of health. It is noteworthy that disease processes, such as in the heart, have been known to start in people as young as five and lack of physical activity is a major contributing factor. However, if Andy is aware of all the benefits and still does not wish to exercise, then we must respect his decision.

2 CONTEMPLATION

Becky Gardiner

Journalist

Age: 32

Height: 5ft 3in

Weight: 9 and a half stone

"Since I was 29 I've put on a stone. I used to cycle everywhere, but I didn't see it as exercise. It was my mode of transport. Then I started working in an office a long way from home, and cycling to work became impossible.

"In the past I have tried to start exercising. What happens is that I get terribly, terribly enthusiastic and I go to the gym three times a week. I get frustrated with the programme I've been given and think it's not strenuous enough. I tell everyone I know to go. I eat well and I give up smoking. Then, normally after about three weeks, I realise that I don't like it, that I find it utterly boring, so I stop. I'll go without milk in my tea rather than walk 300 yards up the road to buy some. I'm very manic about exercise. It's all or nothing.

"Right now I feel like I'm on a downward spiral. I'm eating and smoking a lot. In a few months' time, I'll probably have a surge of optimism and aim for the perfect body again. I've tried lots of forms of exercise in the past and I don't like any of them. I started going to badminton with a friend. I bought a really good racquet and new trainers, then gave up. I tried to go swimming yesterday. The pool's just up the road but when I got there I realised I had forgotten my towel so I went home.

"I don't think I'm going to find the perfect sport or the right fitness programme. I need to think differently. I have a problem with exercise because of the classic bad school experience. I was always the smallest and the slowest. I'm not naturally lazy. I'll dig in the garden all day with barely a break but it's practical. The gym seems so silly - all that effort and you don't get anywhere."

Rob Shannon on Contemplation:

Contemplation is the stage where a person is thinking about change. Becky can see the benefits, but previous experiences have shaped her beliefs as to how hard it is to keep going. She has spent the past few years yo- yoing between the first four stages. Ambivalence is high and Becky would do well to examine all the pros and cons of exercising at this point instead of rushing into a hasty change. Write them down as specifically as possible. How will being fitter help your everyday life? How will you feel when you do lose weight? What is it about exercise that you don't like? Don't just count up the number of responses on each side. If you feel ready, play devil's advocate. Imagine you've decided not to exercise. What would it be like? Then imagine you are going to start.

Becky is caught between two things. One, the desire for the perfect body and, two, a desire not to do formal exercise. She can certainly be fit without doing what she classes as hard work. In fact the best exercises are not always those that are optimum in promoting fitness but those that people enjoy and stick to.

Not everyone can achieve the "perfect" body - we can only improve on what we've got, so Becky needs to have realistic goals. I would work on her belief that she can't stick to exercising. She can. It's just harder than she would like it to be. She could try saying to herself: "It's harder than I'd like it to be but I can maybe manage 20 minutes." Boredom is evidence that you need to change.

Becky will always find a reason why she can't or won't like a certain exercise and she needs to look at what she's done before and why it went wrong. She has an "on or off mentality" which says, if it's not completely successful, it's not worth doing, which isn't the case.

3 PREPARATION

Diane Scott

International marketing manager

Age: 27

Height: 5ft 10in

Weight: 11 stone 4

"I want to exercise because I worry about keeping my weight down. I have half a stone to lose. I also think about long-term things like heart disease. I measure myself by the notches in my belt.

"I've got the aerobics schedule in my diary. I just haven't got around to going yet. There's no excuse because the class is held in my office. It's a six o'clock class but I always find something to do at 5.45pm and then it's five past six and I think it's too late.

"I have trouble making that first step because I think that everyone in there will be going on a regular basis and I'll look really unfit, flabby and elephantine. I know this is a post-rationalisation and that I would soon begin to feel better.

"I like aerobics because of the music and the people but I could only do one class a week because I'm abroad a lot. I could make sure that I stayed in hotels with a swimming pool but I don't at the moment. I miss competitive sports but you can't play netball in your 20s; aerobics is the next best thing. I am ready to start exercising again. It's just making the first step."

Rob Shannon on Preparation:

For Diane, the benefits of exercise outweigh the costs and she has made the commitment to change. She knows what activity she wants to do, when she can do it, and she has a specific goal in mind. This distinguishes her as a "preparer"

from Becky's more ambivalent "contemplator". She is ready to start exercising. Hasty decisions and inadequate planning can hinder the change process.

Many people at this stage have tried exercising before only to give up, and they may be frightened that this will happen again. Diane should not think that any plan is not open to review. She says she could fit in one class a week. She should check out the class - I always think that high- intensity, long-duration classes aren't the best start. It's got to be gradual so she has the confidence to carry on.

She has identified that time is a problem. Maybe now she could realise that work will always be busy and say: "This time I'll have to plan to exercise first thing in the morning." She can rehearse coping skills to bring out when the difficult situations crop up - packing her kit the night before and so on. When people face another exercise regime, having given up before, they often say that this time it will be different because "this time I'm really motivated", which is not specific enough. You need to identify previous weaknesses and come up with specific solutions.

4 ACTION

Martyn Long

Assistant service manager in a garage

Age: 36

Height: 5ft 8in

Weight: 10 stone 1

"My wife and I were advised by our trainers that in order to improve on our third place position in the national Latin American dancing competition we needed to increase our strength and stamina. That was a reason for making the effort. So we joined a health club and go to the gym three times a week. We started four weeks ago and I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying it. We go together and we egg each other on.

"We've been taught to build ourselves up slowly - if it's not too hard to do then you are likely to come more often. It is very helpful that we have an aim. We want to improve our dancing and we have already noticed a change. If I was just doing it for the sake of it, then it would be easier to give up. I'm in the honeymoon period, I know, but I'm confident of keeping going."

Rob Shannon on Action:

The action stage is when the person begins the new regime. There are three key parts to success in action. First, the behaviour change should be gradual so that is not too much of a shock to the system. Second, a support network is important. People benefit from encouragement and many flounder without it. Finally, reward - it is best to reward yourself for the behaviour change rather than reaching the goal. For example, buy yourself something nice when you have exercised three times a week rather than when you have reached a certain fitness level.

Martyn is following the first two stages successfully. Some goals are stronger than others; studies have shown that weight control is the least successful goal. As Martyn has found, if you start off with one goal such as being more healthy, you start having other motivations, such as enjoyment.

5 MAINTENANCE

Philip Herbert

Actor

Age: 39

Height: 5ft 8in

Weight: 16 stone

"I was 18 and a half stone and my right foot was in a lot of pain because of a collapsed arch. I'm an actor and I do a lot of dancing so I knew I had to do something about it. A friend of mine who had just transformed his body recommended his personal trainer and it has worked for me.

"In three months I have lost three stone. My waist is down from 53 inches to 44. I want to lose another couple of stone but you can't rush these things. I've had to change the way I think. Before, I was never really worried. Now I notice fat people struggling on their feet. I was also motivated by approaching 40. I think I'm going to stick to it because I like the changes and my body's happier. After the first six weeks you get into a different way of thinking. It seems less of a change and more a way of life. I went to a salsa class and T'ai Chi last week, just for fun.

"The hardest thing was starting. I thought people would think, 'Look at that fat bastard,' but they were very friendly. Having a personal trainer is good - I have a harder workout with her than without. She can force me to go on that extra two minutes."

Rob Shannon on Maintenance:

Maintenance is the stage where people attempt to consolidate the changes that they made in the action stage. It is important to develop both an awareness of high-risk situations, such as holidays and busy work schedules, and strategies to prevent these situations escalating into missed sessions.

Philip is feeling very good about his changes but there is a danger that he will be unprepared when the inevitable slip occurs. Many people think: "That's it, I've failed. I've stopped exercising." He should prepare a strategy for dealing with slips so that they don't turn into abandonment of the programme.

It's good that Philip is finding the exercise fun. Some people in the maintenance phase focus too much on how far they've got to go rather than what they've achieved. One woman came to us after she'd abandoned a diet where she was aiming to lose three stone: she plateaued, having lost two stone 11 pounds. Philip should be ready to consolidate his exercise plan, in case boredom sets in.

6 TERMINATION

Catharine Boothroyd

Actor

Age: 28

Height: 5ft 7in

Weight: has not weighed herself for at least five years

"I did a lot of sports at school: gymnastics, ballet, swimming training. When I left school I started running because it was the only exercise available. If I didn't do it I felt terrible, really sluggish, and if I left it a week I'd get irritable.

"It's even easier now because I've found something I love in acrobatics. I go twice a week. It gives me a thrill because throwing your body around is quite dangerous and I'm learning all the time.

"I do at least two acrobatic classes a week plus two swims, to strengthen my back for acrobatics. I'm going to a gym as well, just for a change. Ideally I'd exercise every day - the more exercise I do, the more energy I have. Exercise is my stabling force.

"On tour, it becomes harder to keep up the exercise but I always find a way. I go out and try new things. If I don't like them, I change. I know what works for me and if I don't feel comfortable with the class I stop going. Exercise is part of me; it's something I do, not a regime."

Rob Shannon on Termination:

You enter the "termination" phase when no further change is needed because the behaviour is now a part of your daily life. Catharine is somebody who's planning in advance and has great self-regulation skills. She sees exercise as very important and enjoys it. She makes sensible decisions about whether a class is right for her rather than blaming herself when it goes wrong. The only danger now is that a healthy attitude can sometimes become an obsessional one. Catharine needn't worry at the moment. She's relaxed about those times when she can't exercise.

8 Rob Shannon is health and fitness manager of the Hampshire Tennis and Health Club (01703 360360) and a lecturer in Health Behaviour Change at City University, London.

8 Additional research by Trevor Commons and Anne O'Dowd, who are personal trainers.

Comments