A Couch Potato Gets Fit

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

After 38 sluggish years, I finally made exercise a habit.

WebMD Feature

May 22, 2000 -- Until four months ago, only my fingers exercised. For hours each day, they danced on the computer keys, while the rest of me slumped in my chair. For weight-bearing activity, I lugged chin-high piles of laundry to the washer every couple of weeks.

Oh, I got my heart rate up all right. Once or twice a month, I'd open an email attachment to find that an editor had transformed my carefully streamlined prose into strings of clunky prepositional phrases linked by plodding verbs. My pulse would race -- but I knew that wasn't what the experts meant by aerobic exercise.

I wanted to get moving. At 38, I suspected that my body could tolerate only so much more lethargy. My 80-year-old dad hikes in the Alps every summer. My 72-year-old mom swims a mile almost every day. They were in better shape than I was, and I was starting to wonder how I'd function at their age. I imagined myself leaning, gasping, over a supermarket cart after a stroll down the cereal aisle.

So what was my problem? I'm usually a self-starter: When I commit myself to something, I do it, even if it's difficult. Singing in public used to make me shake, for instance, so I forced myself to go to a piano bar every week and belt out a tune.

Yet I couldn't make myself exercise. "You have got to do something about this," I'd admonish myself, but to no avail.

I tried various schemes to goad myself into action. I joined a gym. But the only time I hauled myself there was to get my photo taken for the ID card. My friend invited me to meet him at the Y one day -- and I almost went.

An Electrifying Article

Then, in late January, a friend passed along an article called "Get Psyched for Fitness." It was about the work of University of Rhode Island psychologist James Prochaska, who studies how people break bad habits and establish new ones. (For more information on Prochaska's research into establishing an exercise habit, see Six Steps That Can Change Your Life) Prochaska has identified six stages of change that successful habit-changers typically pass through -- whether they want to quit smoking, break a gambling addiction, or start exercising regularly.

Reading the article, a light bulb went on in my head. I realized that I had been stuck in stage two -- contemplation -- for years. The reason? I had inadvertently been omitting the crucial next step -- preparation -- that lay between deciding to exercise and actually doing it. All those times I'd demanded "What's wrong with you?" I should have been asking, "Exactly when in your day are you going to fit this in?"

Sounds simple, but it got me over the hump. To make my intentions a reality, I needed a specific plan. So I analyzed my schedule and chose late afternoon as the time to get moving. I dug through drawers, looking for long-unused sweatpants and exercise bras, so that when the time came, no logistical glitches would keep me deskbound.

Into the Woods

Finally, more than eight months after I moved next door to a redwood forest -- I tied the laces on my vintage sneakers and jogged into it. As I'd suspected, I often had to walk to soothe a cramp below my ribcage. Even as I gasped for air, though, I realized that my pounding heart was chasing away the jittery thoughts that usually inhabited my brain. I returned home surprisingly refreshed, and penciled "exercise" into my organizer for two days later at 4 p.m. When the time came, I remembered that vibrant calm and tried again.

Now my legs and my mind start to jiggle in the late afternoon if I haven't yet run. I often leave my house feeling panicky about deadlines or overwhelmed by concepts I don't quite grasp. My jog transports me to a different self: Percussive breaths drum a sense of steadiness into me and I find myself imagining springs on my soles that catapult me forward. By the end of my outing, I know that I can complete my tasks without trouble and understand anything necessary.

It's not always easy. Some days, headwinds make my eyes tear up and foil my efforts to move forward, or I feel exhausted before I start. The grime on the bathroom sink demands attention; the novel I'm reading beckons. I run anyway. By the time I lope out of the woods, after 30 or 40 minutes, I'm usually wishing that the trail extended further. Often I sprint to the finish.

Now I exercise because it feels good, not because it's good for me. But I wouldn't have realized that was possible until I learned how to lay down the stepping stones that connect contemplation with action. Maybe I can finally type goodbye to the days when my fingers leave the rest of me in the dust.

Evelyn Strauss is a science and health writer in Santa Cruz, Calif. The more she runs on the trails, the less she runs on her sentences.

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