I still love my couch.
The couch is comfortable and faces the television. It’s leather so spilled food wipes away easily.
There was a time that the couch held much more sway over me than it does now. Now, couch time is earned rather than default. Now, being active is ingrained into my personality in such a way that I cannot imagine ever stopping.
Over the decades of being active, coaching others, and writing about fitness I’ve discovered that undergoing such a major mental transformation from abhorring activity to living to be physical often involves going through a series of phases.
Me: “Phases. There are three.”
When it comes to any behavior change, and not just exercise, that we find daunting, in involves progressive steps. These aren’t written in stone, but for the many people who struggle to adopt a new behavior, like regular exercise or healthy eating, you might find yourself going through a process such as this one:
Phase 1: Fear
Fear of the consequences of not changing your behavior is what prompts you to action. If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high body fat, low energy, low muscle mass, low fruit and vegetable intake, high alcohol intake—you get the idea—these are things to worry about. These are things that stress people out. These are things that cause fear about your health.
So this fear often gets you moving. You get fed up with these nagging, negative feelings and decide to do something about it like get a gym membership, start a running program or begin taking group classes.
There’s one problem, however. Fear sucks as a motivator.
Yes, it can act as that initial spark to get you going, but it has no staying power. Cardiac rehabilitation programs have shockingly high dropout rates. These are people who may die if they don’t change their behaviors, yet they can’t force themselves to stick with the program.
Imagine this: You’re one of those cardiac rehab folks and while you’re working out this thought runs through your brain: Gotta exercise or I’ll die. Gotta exercise or I’ll die. Gotta exercise or—Oh, screw it! I’d rather just die.
If you need to use fear for that initial impetus to get moving and change eating habits that is fine, but know that you must progress to Phase 2, and quickly.
Phase 2: Duty
Sometimes a sense of duty intermingles with fear in the beginning stage, but as you overcome fear this is the one that has significantly more staying power as a fitness motivator.
Duty is when you feel you must persevere at getting in shape because you owe it not just to yourself, but to others, too. I’ve discussed this before in an article on taking “me” time to exercise.
Perhaps you have health or just plain old quality of life concerns about where your current lifestyle is taking you. Making positive health changes can be easier if you feel it’s your duty to do so. Do you have a family who depends upon you? Do they need you to stick around and be healthy and high functioning to do all that stuff that you do? Do you feel like you could be even better at those things if you were living a healthier lifestyle? Do you want to act as a good role model for people? Do you want to be more effective in your career? Do you want to be able to help your family adopt healthier behaviors, too?
All these questions are examples of how feelings of duty motivate behavior change. It’s definitely more powerful than fear is, but it pales in comparison to…
Phase 3: Passion
If you’re a regular reader of my work you would have seen this one coming.
Passion is what it’s all about, and the simplest advice that I can give on how to develop it is to focus on getting good at something. If you are struggling with learning to love exercise, then know that the self-efficacy model of behavior change states that developing confidence and competence at a new activity promotes adherence.
So, during those early phases of fear and duty it’s important to do more than just go through the motions. You need to focus on building that confidence and competence so that you actually start to feel good about your capabilities. When you embrace things such as performance accomplishments—becoming faster, stronger, more flexible, more agile, more coordinated, as well as improving your endurance—you get an ego boost from this. That ego boost feels good. It creates what is called “positive reinforcement.” Exercise (stimulus) generates a positive response (feeling good) and so the behavior is reinforced and you keep doing it.
The best thing about passion is that it can push you to keep getting better and start trying new things. And it doesn’t have to have an expiration date either. I know myriad examples of lifelong runners, weightlifters, cyclists and cross-country skiers. I once wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times about how people can continue to run into old age and it generated a ton of email from people on the far side of 50 with tales of being runners for many decades.
The people who never quit are the ones who have found their passion. You must transition through these phases to find yours.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.