Overcoming mental challenges can be hardest part of exercise

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2001

WASHINGTON -- For most new exercisers, it's easier to quit than to get fit. Keeping the will to stick with a program can be the hardest exercise.

''Most people who adopt exercise will quit within a short time -- 50 percent within 6 to 8 weeks, another 25 percent by the end of the year,'' said sports psychologist William F. Morgan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

''We must be doing something wrong,'' Morgan said.

How to set things right vexes researchers as well as workers in the exercise training field. Their responses include changing the nature of exercise, changing its structure and changing the way exercisers think about what they want to do.

Morgan focuses on changing the nature. The current approach -- health clubs, weight training, running and the like -- doesn't motivate people because it's artificial, he said.

''The reason for the dropouts in these programs is that exercisers have been employing nonpurposeful physical activity -- riding bicycles to nowhere, running treadmills to nowhere,'' Morgan said.

What people need is not exercise programs but physical activity that is part of their daily lives and has purpose, Morgan said. ''If you want to buy an exercise machine, go to the local dog pound and adopt a dog,'' he said. ''That's one of the best exercise machines you can find. They have to go on their daily walk.''

Similarly, people who walk so they can go to work will get their healthful activity even though they may not think of it as exercise, Morgan said.

Some people can stick with conventional exercise programs, but they have managed to make the workouts an important part of their personal identity, Morgan said. ''A daily jog might become ritualized to where it has deep meaning for you as an individual -- but most people quit long before that,'' he said.

Conventional exercise also can be purposeful, said researcher Rod K. Dishman of the University of Georgia. Exercising to lose weight, avoid weakening of the bones or add a bit to a person's lifespan can impart lots of personal meaning, he said.

The problem is to overcome the initial tedium and discomfort, to get to the point where the benefits kick in, and a good way to do this is to minimize discomfort and accentuate enjoyment of the activity, Dishman said. He advises people to find an activity they like, do it with a person they like, and keep doing it regularly until it becomes a habit.

Getting support from the community can provide the personal meaning that translates to motivation, said Dr. Jon L. Schriner, who is trying to build such support in Flint, Mich.

Schriner is medical director of the Crim Festival of Races, a series of events that range from a one-mile fun walk to an internationally competitive 10-mile race.

The Crim tries to make even beginners see themselves as members of a group that runs, Schriner said.

''Training for the Crim goes on all year long,'' he said. ''We have classes. We bring in a sports psychologist. We talk to them about buying shoes, equipment, how they should be running. And we socialize.''

Beginning exercisers will be less likely to drop out if they think they will lose standing in their group, Schriner said. ''The group method has worked for us much more strongly than the individual method,'' he said.

''If you take an individual, and he is going to motivate himself, he has to have a lot of goals -- and most of the time, they are pie-in-the-sky ideas,'' Schriner said.

Personal trainers make their livings from those individuals, so they look for ways to keep beginners motivated. Fitness consultant Daniel Ball wrote about it in the November-December issue of IDEA Personal trainer, a publication of IDEA Health and Fitness Association, a fitness professionals group.

Trainers must help exercisers keep their goals positive and in line with reality, Ball advised. Instead of ''I'm never going to lose weight,'' the exerciser should be encouraged to think, ''I will eventually lose weight, it just may take more time and work,'' he said.

Trainers also must help exercisers to build confidence, by targeting small but achievable increases and discouraging lofty goals that will be tough to achieve, Ball wrote. Exercisers also can talk themselves into success if they are guided away from focusing on their failures, the article said.

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