Becoming more physically active is one of the most common ambitions for a healthier lifestyle. For most, it will only confirm the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as it is very difficult to replace the old and well-practiced habits such as watching tv series or playing video games.
In this blog post, I will share some of my knowledge from motivational psychology which, if used, is likely to increase your chances of being successful in becoming more physically active. The theoretical basis of these steps comes from the understanding of habits. By learning the basics of how habits work, we can increase our control of the behaviors we perform regularly.
A key characteristic of habits is that they are behaviors that are initiated without much (or any) conscious effort . For example, morning rituals are for many people highly automatic, particularly if they live alone (and therefore have a very stable environment). One may snooze twice, get up, get in the shower, have coffee and breakfast, before taking the same bus to work, every day. All this can usually be done without spending any amount of consideration of whether it will lead to positive or negative consequences. This morning routine can simply be triggered by the alarm clock and the awareness that it is a weekday morning. In contrast, behaviors that we do not do regularly, and not inconsistent situations, require much more thinking and planning to be performed efficiently. This is often the case when people attempt to change their lifestyle, and try to do something which they are not used to.
For most people, it may be difficult to increase the amount of physical activity they do. There are just too many questions and doubts that may arise when trying to get started. What sort of activity should I do? When should I do it? It is raining, should I rather run tomorrow? I feel a bit hungry; maybe I should rather exercise after dinner, maybe I should rather try something else, etc. All such second-guessing and questions are likely to lead to procrastinating or simply choosing not to go through with the planned activity.
So how then, can one utilize the power of habits, to become more efficient at doing regular physical activity?
Here are three easy steps, which are likely to improve your chances of getting started with any new type of behavior as swiftly and efficiently as possible. A good suggestion could be to make this a written exercise, but it could also be useful to discuss this with a friend or family member.
Step 1: specify your intentions?
First and foremost, it is important that you become as explicit as possible when stating what you want to do. When picking a form of activity it is important to pick activities that are likely to be enjoyable, or interesting. Picking activities because they are claimed to be effective forms of exercise, is rarely a good idea, unless they also appear enjoyable or interesting . Picking fun or interesting activities is critical for your personal enjoyment and the maintenance of your motivation over time. This will be addressed more in-depth in a future blog post.
In this step, I want you to form quite specific intention statements. For example, if you enjoy jogging, then you could make it a goal to jog 5km twice per week. If you enjoy spinning classes, then determine the number of times you want to go weekly. The key to this step is to avoid vague intentions such as «I want to become more active», or «I am going to get super fit for bikini-season, this year». Those intentions are far too vague and may lead to difficulties in deciding how to proceed .
Step 2: identify windows of opportunity
Most people live regular lives with a fair amount of routine and predictability. If this is the case for you, then you are very likely to be able to identify some time points during the week, when it is completely unlikely that you will be able to do the activity you wish to do. Similarly, it should also be possible to find some time points when physical activity could be possible, or maybe even that it would fit just perfect. These are the windows of opportunity, and these moments are important to make note of. This could be a long lunch break, it could be the hour when your own children are at football practice, or it could simply be utilizing your commuting time to or from work or school where you could cycle, run, rollerskate, or any other such activity. If you are a morning person, it could perfect to perform your activity of choice early in the morning before work, or before the children wake up.
Importantly, by identifying your windows of opportunity, you can make good decisions ahead of time, and you can physically and mentally prepare for these moments, which you know will come.
Step 3: forming a specific plan
This step pulls together the research from step 1 and 2. The key here is to combine the specific intention (what activity you will do), with the specific time you will do it (the widow of opportunity). This statement should have the following form: in situation X, I will perform behavior Y.
Examples of this could be: Every Wednesday and Friday, I will go swimming in (specific pool) during my lunch break or I will cycle to work on Mondays and Thursdays. The statements could also be very small and simple things, such as: Immediately after having put the kids to bed, I will do 20 push-ups, and/or 2 minutes of a single stretching exercise.
These statements are called implementation intentions in the psychological literature . They have been tested in numerous experimental studies where they have been found to increase success rates of initiating a number of health-related behaviors compared to the very common strategy of formulating goal-intentions, which basically is a statement of a goal someone wants to attain. This could typically be something like. “I intend to go jogging three times weekly in the New Year”, or “I will train to be able to complete 50 consecutive push-ups within the summer”.
Forming new habits
Implementation intentions are effective because they mimic the mechanisms which make habitual behaviors very easy and automatic to initiate. When the planned situation arises, you already know what to do. However, strong habits are only likely to be formed when the same type of behavior has been performed many times in stable or similar contexts . Nevertheless, everything has to start somewhere, and the three suggested steps will make sure that you give yourself the best possible chances to develop a habit of being physically active.
It is very important to note that even though you complete the three steps, you are not necessarily going to create a new habit. You are not even guaranteed to be able to get started with a more physically active lifestyle. However, it will greatly increase your chances of success, simply because you have done some quality planning, which has included considerations of what activities you enjoy, and how they can most efficiently be incorporated into your routines. Therefore, by following the suggested steps, you will find it easier to get started, to avoid procrastination, and to fight off distractions .
Best of luck! If you have the intention of becoming more physically active, or changing any other aspect of your lifestyle, spend 30 minutes going through these steps, and it may just be the most important investment you will make.
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