Learning to love exercise: The three stages

First there is fear, then duty, then the good part, passion. Learn about the road to exercise success
By James S. Fell
Learning to love exercise: The three stages Getty

I suppose it’s still January, isn’t it?

How’s that New Year’s fitness resolution going? Struggling along? Have you given up already? What phase are you in?

You: “Phase?” Me: “Phase. There are three.”

When it comes to any behaviour change, not just exercise, that we find daunting, there are three general phases that we progress through. These aren’t written in stone, but for the majority of people who struggle to adopt a new behaviour, like regular exercise or healthy eating, you can expect to go through a process like this.

Phase 1: Fear
Fear of the consequences of not changing your behaviour 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 Zumba 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 behaviours, 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 able to help your family adopt healthier behaviours, too?

All these questions are examples of how feelings of duty motivate behaviour 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 column 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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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. My latest Los Angeles Times column generated a ton of email from people well into retirement age with tales of being runners for many decades.

They have passion. You must transition through these phases to find yours. Get gung ho.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.


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