For a person to successfully adopt a healthier behavior — whether it's to
exercise, lose weight, or stop smoking — it may not be as simple as just deciding
to do it. Behavior change expert James Prochaska and his colleagues developed
a theory, which has been supported by numerous studies, showing that people
cycle through a variety of stages before a new behavior is successfully adopted
over the long term.
It may help you to understand how this works. As you read the description
of each stage -- specifically as it relates to exercise — you may find yourself
nodding and saying to yourself, "Yes, that's me!"
Stage 1: Pre-Contemplation
People at this stage have no plans or desire to exercise. They aren't even
considering exercising. People at this stage are generally unaware of the specific
benefits that exercise can bring — exercise may seem more like a hassle than
something worth doing. Or, they may simply have "failed" in the past and have
There's no point in talking about how to start an exercise program if you
are at this stage. Instead, it is important to think about why exercise might
be good for you personally — by helping you to lose weight, feel better, have
more confidence, live longer, sleep better, or have less stress. The benefits
must be identified before a person will consider exercise.
If you are at this stage, a good activity is to ask four friends or family
members why they exercise. That may unveil real-life benefits and inspire enough
interest to compel you to take the next step.
Stage 2: Contemplation
A person at this stage is thinking, "I think I should probably exercise, but
I need help getting started." People at this stage know that exercise is good
for them, but it seems like a daunting task or they don't think they can pull
it off. Some may have tried and "failed" in the past, but they are still receptive
to another go-round.
It's important for people at this stage to consider some of the truths and
falsehoods of exercise. For example, it is helpful to know that there are many
forms of physical activity to select from, and that you can do your exercising
in small chunks. It is not true that exercise has to be painful, or that you
either succeed or fail. There is no such thing as "failure" — people become
more or less active at different stages of their lives, and it is never too
late to get moving again. And people at this stage should find assurance that
an exercise plan can be very simple.
If you are at this stage, a good activity is write down (brainstorm) all your
potential roadblocks — the things that you believe make exercise difficult
— and to learn strategies for overcoming or side-stepping those hurdles. Many
ideas are available on the Internet.
People at this stage might benefit from making a pledge, contract, or other
commitment that they are going to get more active in the near future.
Prochaska and his colleagues write that people in this stage are "aware of
the pros of changing but are also acutely aware of the cons. This balance between
the costs and benefits of changing can produce profound ambivalence that can
keep people stuck in this stage for long periods of time. We often characterize
this phenomenon as chronic contemplation or behavioral procrastination."
Thus, the goal is to get un-stuck by identifying the roadblocks, ways to overcome
these hurdles, and making a commitment.
Stage 3: Preparation
These folks are primed and motivated. They are ready to give exercise a try.
The goal of this stage is to create a specific action plan that takes all factors
into account, so that the "launch" is successful.
People at this stage need to know how much they should be exercising, their
target heart rate, and the types of exercises. They should explore the different
kinds of exercises and decide on which ones to try. At this stage, they'll
evaluate exercise machines and health plans, if that interests them, pick the
proper clothing or accessories, and consult a physician if necessary. And they
need to think about how they are going to fit their exercise plans into their
daily and weekly schedule.
If you are at this stage, you should also consider some backup plans — what
to do if it rains, or if you don't feel like exercising. That way you are prepared
to overcome that hurdle when it happens. And you should be aware of what to
realistically anticipate at the beginning (for example, you should understand
that weight loss takes time, but the health benefits of exercise begin immediately).
Stage 4: Action!
People at this stage have just started exercising. This stage is where the
most behavior change occurs — these folks have started to exercise but it
is not yet a long-term, ingrained habit. Prochaska notes that this stage requires
significant commitment and energy.
If you are at this stage, keep talking to friends and family for inspiration.
Review your backup plans. Reward yourself for small achievements. And give
yourself notes and reminders to exercise. If you can find a friend to exercise
with, that can be a huge support as you get through this stage. You want to
build and maintain momentum, because it gets easier once it is a habit!
Stage 5: Maintenance
The folks at this stage have been exercising at least 6 months. At this point,
exercising has started to become a habit. The goal here is to prevent relapse.
If you are at this stage, identify ways that you can fine-tune your program.
Continue to identify roadblocks and improve your backup plans. Think about
what you have found most enjoyable about exercising. What benefits have you
gained? Keep reminding yourself of these perks.
If giving yourself a challenge was part of your initial motivation, set new
goals and give yourself new challenges. If you risk getting bored with your
routine, find ways to vary it. Or maybe you have found a comfortable routine
that you enjoy — if it's working, great! Then no need to change it.
You might want to read or learn more about your method of exercising and develop
a deeper level of understanding about it. Soon you'll be a pro!
Let's do it again
One point about the theory is that people do not proceed from one stage to
another in a simple, step-by-step fashion. They actually cycle or spiral back
and forth, so that they may move from stage 1 to 2 to 3, and then back to 2
again. They may stay in maintenance mode for years and then fall back to stage
Remember that this is normal — if you tried exercising in the past and didn't
stick with it, don't consider yourself a failure. Just know that it's time
to try again!
Review Date: 3/12/2007
Reviewed By: Benjamin W. Van Voorhees, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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