Want to Get Fit? Change the Way You Think!

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

How you perceive yourself could make all the difference in how you exercise.

WebMD Feature

June 26, 2000 -- When I was a high school track star, my mom was my biggest fan. She videotaped my races, and the videos always turned out the same way. The camera would follow me as I broke free of the starting line, and then, as I got closer, it would jerkily point to the ground or the sky, and the only sound would be Mom yelling, "Go, Christie, you can do it!"

Exercise is as much a part of me as the crooked nose, scarred knees, and scuffed elbows I've acquired in various bicycle mishaps. I can picture myself without the laptop and notepad I use to make my living as a writer, but I can't possibly imagine myself living a sedentary life. By contrast, exercise had never factored into my mom's image of herself as a wife, mother, and independent businesswoman.

Still, I've always thought Mom could have been an athlete like me if only she'd had the same opportunities. And over the past year, she's proved me right -- and made me proud.

Mom had been sedentary for all her adult years, but after she turned 50, health concerns spurred her to make a change. "I don't want age to prevent me from doing things," she told me. Looking around at her elderly relatives, some of whom can't walk unaided, scared her. "I don't want to be fragile," she said.

Over the past 12 months, she's made an amazing transformation. She now exercises almost every day, has taken up in-line skating, and has even joined a basketball team. She didn't imbibe some magic potion; she just reinvented herself in her own mind, one small step at a time. She's formed a new image of herself as someone who can take on any number of physical challenges. And fitness experts I've talked with say that her story holds important lessons for anyone seeking to make exercise a habit.

Start Small

One of the first things Mom did was to create a detailed plan for how she'd incorporate exercise into her daily life. She started with a modest goal: to walk for at least 40 minutes four times per week. But she gave the goal a twist: She mapped out her neighborhood and devised routes that would allow her to cover every single street -- all 34 miles worth -- at least once.

It turns out that Mom's strategy was right on target, says Edward McAuley, PhD, an exercise psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "You have to start by setting goals that are challenging but realistic," he says. "Early success improves your confidence about meeting other challenges."

Confidence about your ability to exercise is crucial for anyone struggling to make the transition to an active lifestyle, McAuley says. His research bears this out. In one study, published in the May 1999 issue of the journal Health Psychology, McAuley and two graduate students asked 46 college women who weren't regular exercisers to ride a stationary bike. Afterward, the researchers gave the women bogus feedback. They told half the women that their performance was poor, while they led the others to believe that they had outpaced the rest. During a follow-up exercise test, the women given the positive feedback reported significantly more good feelings and less fatigue than those who were told their performance was lackluster.

Treat Yourself

As Mom built confidence by meeting her goals, she rewarded herself with small indulgences like massages and trips to her favorite bookstore. Brad Cardinal, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says that such self-rewards are powerful tools for keeping yourself on track. "The reward doesn't have to be extravagant," he says. "What's important is that you treat yourself."

Another of Mom's strategies was to consciously reinforce an image of herself as an active person. "If I'm on vacation and I have an opportunity to go canoeing or biking, I want to be able to say, 'yeah, I can do that,' " she says. "That's the kind of image I have of myself in my mind: someone who is able to do active, adventurous things."

In the course of her daily life, she found small ways to bolster that image. When she found herself circling the mall parking lot in search of the closest space, she would remind herself that active people like her are happy to fit in an extra walk. "People who succeed at this are the ones who make exercise a part of their identity, and that identity reinforces their exercise habit," says Cardinal.

As Mom and I corresponded about her program via email, I started seeing a distinct shift in her thinking. "Rather than 'I guess I should go walk now,' it's 'where will I walk today?' " she wrote.

Before long I was hearing about her adventures atop a pair of in-line skates. And then there was the basketball team. Mom had told me that she'd played hoops as a youngster. But that ended once she started high school; in the small farm town where she'd grown up, there were no high school athletic teams for girls. I guess it's never too late: Several months ago she joined a team for women over 50, telling me "Hey, if a 70-year-old woman can do this, so can I!"

I always knew there was an athlete lurking inside her; I just had no idea the athlete was a basketball player.

Expect Obstacles; Work Around Them

True, there have been setbacks. My mother got discouraged after a few skating spills and kept the skates in the closet for while. She broke a finger playing basketball, and then a heavy travel schedule kept her from practicing. But while in the past such obstacles might have sidelined her for good, her new "active Mom" persona has found creative ways to surmount them.

She hired a skating instructor to teach her how to stop without falling. After mulling things over, she decided that because of her travel schedule, now wasn't the time for her to participate in a team sport. She missed the team, but found that her new identity as an exerciser was strong enough that she didn't need buddies to stay motivated. Now when she travels, she scopes out recreation centers and places to walk and even brings her skates along. "I never would have done that before," she told me.

Looking back on my teenage years, I realize that running helped me develop a sense of self-confidence that spilled over into other aspects of my life. Now I'm seeing the same thing in my mom.

Suddenly, the roles have shifted: My mom is the athlete and I'm her biggest fan.

Christie Aschwanden is a freelance science writer in Nederland, Colo. In addition to WebMD, she writes for Health and Modern Drug Discovery magazines.

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