The Six Stages from Couch Potato to Fitness Fanatic

Ask anyone who has quit smoking and they will tell you that they tried to quit a number of times before they were finally successful. The same is true for regular exercisers. Many people start and stop exercising several times before they catch the ‘exercise bug’ for good.

Recently a relative told me that after having exercised inconsistently for about a year, she is now on a mission to work out with a passion. Will she permanently make the transition from couch potato to fitness fanatic? It all depends on whether she is psychologically ready or not.

Through his research with smokers, psychologist James Prochaska observed that people move through a series of predictable stages before finally making a permanent lifestyle change. He called the process “The Stages-of-Change Model”.

Other psychologists have applied Prochaska’s theory to other behaviors like weight management, exercise adherence and substance abuse. I am using it here in the context of exercise but you can apply it to any major change you want to make in your life.

By understanding what stage you are in, you will be able to judge whether you are psychologically ready to make a permanent commitment to fitness. By using the tips given by Prochaska in his book, “Changing for Good”, you can “push” yourself to the next stage or prevent yourself from regressing to the stage before. Understanding this process of change will also help you have more patience with a loved one who is trying his or her best to change an unhealthy habit but doesn’t quite seem to succeed.

People in this stage are not even thinking of exercising. If this is you, you may have made a resolution to get fit a few years ago but right now, you don’t believe there is any good reason for you to work out.

Prochaska says that a good way to push yourself into the next stage, which is thinking about starting exercise, is to learn about what fitness can do for you. This can happen, intentionally or unintentionally, through reading, watching TV, listening to a discussion on the radio, or talking to friends about what exercise has done for them.

At this stage, people acknowledge that they have a need to exercise and that it would be good for them. They want to work out but don’t have a definite date or plan. There is a lot of talking but no action.

Prochaska says that people can stay at this stage for years. So, what will eventually push a person into doing something? He says that continuing to increase your knowledge about fitness is part of the answer but you also need to become “emotionally aroused” about your health or your looks.

Some experts call this a S.E.E. or “significantly emotional experience”. Others call it the “enough is enough” moment when you decide that you are finally going to act.

It can range from something as tragic as having a young relative die of a stroke to something as petty as seeing a picture of yourself in a bathing suit. Whatever it is, the message has to hit you hard in a personal way.

At this stage, preparations are being made for the big day when you will actually start exercising. You may have already bought your athletic shoes and signed up at a gym.

Unfortunately, as many people have discovered, making preparations doesn’t guarantee that you will really exercise. Many people have bought gym memberships and have never used them. Many people have brand-new exercise shoes and apparel in their closets that have never seen the light of day.

Prochaska suggests strategies like telling other people about your preparations to “pressure” you to make good on your promise. Writing a contract with a friend or with yourself has been proven effective, especially if it has specific rewards and penalties.

Prochaska considers someone to be at this stage if they have been exercising for at least six months. It is a well-known fact in the fitness industry that the majority of people stop exercising within six months of starting so this is still a vulnerable stage.

Many people become overconfident and allow themselves to skip workouts and before they know it, they have stopped exercising and are back to the contemplation or preparation stage.

Stay in this stage by rewarding yourself for small victories like being able to walk for forty minutes instead of ten. Deliberately manipulate your environment to avoid lapses. For example, if you have to travel, ask for a hotel with a gym to continue with your exercise routine. Keeping an exercise logbook or calendar is very effective at keeping you on track with your workouts.

This stage is from six months onward until exercise becomes a permanent and automatic part of your life. Prochaska says that the emphasis in this stage is to prevent lapses from becoming relapses. You have to make a conscious effort so that exercise remains a ‘habit’. If you miss a session or two, immediately make up for it. The same strategies that work for the action stage like keeping a logbook and manipulating your environment work for this stage too.

This is the end stage when exercising has become as automatic as brushing your teeth and taking a bath. A person at this stage doesn’t have to make an effort to exercise; they simply do it because it is a part of who they are. Even if they are forced to stop exercising for one month because of a hectic travel schedule, they automatically go back to working out as soon they return to their regular routine. Very few people reach this stage. Prochaska says that the vast majority remains in the maintenance stage for the rest of their lives. That’s why you hear of people who were avid exercisers for ten years but then, for some reason or another, backslid and became sedentary.

Circular process.
Prochaska notes that this psychological process of change is not linear. People tend to go up and down and around the stages several times. Therefore, if you are discouraged because you have tried to get fit for the last couple of years, take heart, because when you are psychologically ready to change, exercise can become a regular and consistent part of your life.

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