Like many people who resolved to start exercising regularly in January, you have probably given up by now.
Resolving to exercise is a good start, but research has shown that there is a 46% gap between the intention to exercise and actually exercising, and nearly 80% of adults in the United States do not get the minimum weekly 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise recommended by the World Health Organization.
Is there anything that you can do to become part of the successful minority of people who exercise regularly?
Starting and maintaining an exercise program require a behavioral change, and having a positive intention (or resolution) is a critical first step. But for most people, intention alone is not enough to change behavior. Initial and ongoing behavior development and regulation skills are also essential to help turn intentions into actions.
One approach to behavior change to increase physical activity that has had promising results involves the incorporation of the Multi-Process Action Control Framework, known as M-PAC. It includes initial and ongoing reflective tools (thoughts) to develop and maintain the intention to exercise, along with self-regulation tools (conscious actions, thoughts and behaviors to support continued exercise) and reflexive tools (habits, identity) that can be learned and that help make behavior more automatic to sustain the behavior change.
The three strategies below include many aspects of the M-PAC framework, along with suggestions for applying them to reach your exercise and fitness goals.
Figure out your ‘why’
You probably know that getting regular exercise is good for your health, but do you realize how good it actually is, even if you don’t lose a pound?
Weight loss is a big motivation for many people to exercise, but it doesn’t always result in weight loss, so that should not be your only motivation to exercise regularly. Regular exercise decreases your overall risk of dying from any cause, in addition to decreasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, dementia, diabetes and osteoporosis, and it can even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthier weight, improve energy levels, improve blood sugar control if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic (again, even if you don’t lose weight), improve brain function (even in children) and improve sleep.
Focusing on the non-weight-related and personally meaningful benefits of exercise can help you maintain a longer-term positive attitude toward exercise, along with a more realistic expectation of outcomes.
Modify your mindset
Many people who do not exercise regularly don’t think of themselves as “exercisers,” and they lack confidence in their ability to exercise. Both of these factors can significantly reduce the chance of long-term exercise success.
Resetting your mindset isn’t easy, but it can be done. Setting smaller, more moderate short-term goals can help you build your exercise confidence. It is important that goals be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely) but also flexible. If your short-term exercise goals are too vague, too challenging or too far in the future, you are much less likely to succeed at building exercise confidence.
Flexibility is also critical for success, as there will always be competing temptations, goals and interests, so you have to have a backup plan for regular exercise so you don’t give up when faced with an exercise failure or a barrier to exercise as planned.
Monitoring your progress so you can look back and build on your successes can also help. There are dozens of self-monitoring smartphone fitness apps and wearable technology like the Apple Watch or Fitbit, or you can simply plan and track workouts in an exercise journal or on your calendar.
In addition, modifying your physical and social environment is key to modifying your mindset. This could include investing in some attractive workout clothes, home exercise equipment, a wearable fitness monitor or comfortable workout shoes, spending more time socializing with fit friends (or friends who also want to get fit) and planning exercise-associated social outings or joining a nearby gym or exercise class. Any one or a combination of these can help you reset your mindset toward exercise by making it more pleasurable and less of an effort.
Build a better habit
Many people blame a lack of willpower or poor self-control for their failure to exercise regularly. This may be a factor, but research suggests that building strong habits can significantly improve self-control by making behavior more automatic and effortless rather than relying on willpower and decision-making, both of which can be exhausted or depleted.
According to research on successful habit formation, two important factors are cues and consistency, along with intention and strategies to improve mindset. Cues are meant to trigger a response or behavior, and they should be specific and appropriate for the intended behavior.
In a 2017 Canadian study focused on utilizing the principles of habit formation to increase physical activity in new gym members, the researchers suggested an exercise cue. Participants were asked to select their favorite gym clothes (or a water bottle or running shoes) and lay them on their bed before leaving for work as a visual cue to go to the gym. The participants were also instructed to remove the visual cue after exercise was complete so that the cue remained strongly tied to exercise. To establish consistency, the study required at least four exercise sessions per week for six weeks.
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The study also recommended establishing a consistent exercise schedule (before work, after work, during the lunch break) so plans could be made around this schedule with the hope and expectation that they would be less likely to interfere with exercise. Both cues and consistency helped increase total weekly exercise significantly without any other intervention, suggesting the formation of more habitual exercise behavior.
As you can see, following through with your exercise resolution doesn’t have to be so challenging after you build the right foundation. Not only can it improve your health considerably, it may improve your social life and overall productivity and become something that you actually look forward to.