May 22, 2000 -- After alcoholism killed James Prochaska's father, despite the family's best efforts to help, Prochaska resolved to find a way to help people break their bad habits.
Prochaska, a renowned psychologist at the University of Rhode Island and author of Changing for Good, hit the streets to find ordinary people who had dropped bad habits (like smoking and overeating) on their own. After years of studying these successful changers, Prochaska detected a pattern. No matter what habit they'd broken, self-changers had all progressed through the same six stages along the way. What's more, they used a unique set of strategies at each stage.
Prochaska's approach, commonly known as the "stages of change" model, is simple but powerful. Find your stage, and the model tells you what to do next. Sometimes Prochaska's self-changers would fall back a stage or two, but once they resumed the strategies specific to their stage, they'd be back on track. "The only mistake you can make is to give up on yourself," Prochaska says.
Though Prochaska's studies focused on drug abusers, researchers are finding that his approach is a powerful tool for would-be exercisers. Here's how it can help you get moving.
Stage 1: Precontemplation
Precontemplators haven't yet decided to make a change. You know exercise is healthy, but you aren't quite convinced the benefits outweigh the trouble of getting started.
Strategy: Put On Your Thinking Cap
- This isn't the time to "just do it." Instead, start educating yourself about how exercise will benefit you. Start with a tip from Prochaska: "Your couch can kill you."
- List your reasons for wanting to exercise and weigh these benefits against the consequences of staying sedentary. Once your pluses outnumber the minuses, you'll be ready to move forward.
Stage 2: Contemplation
Now you're seriously considering change, but you're not ready to start yet. This is a stage of inertia; some people spend years stuck here. Relax. Your next step is planning. If you keep sliding back to the contemplation stage, it's probably because you flung yourself straight into action too soon -- don't.
Strategy: Figure Out What's Blocking You
- Take an honest look: what's really preventing you from getting started?
- Get committed. Promise yourself you'll overcome those obstacles.
Stage 3: Preparation
You've made a commitment and you're planning to take action soon, probably within the next month.
Strategy: Make Yourself a Plan
- Think through all the details: Will you walk or swim? Where and when will you exercise? What kind of clothing or equipment do you need?
- Draw up a contract with yourself. Set three goals: one for the nextmonth, one for six months, and one for a year. Reward yourself for each goal accomplished. Set an initial goal you're sure to attain; early success will propel you onward.
- Develop a detailed contingency plan. Where will you walk if it rains? How will you exercise when you visit your in-laws? What will you do on days you're tired?
- Make a public commitment. Ask for support from your friends and have them follow up on your progress.
Stage 4: Action
Now it's time to "just do it."
Strategy: Put Your Plan in Motion
- Make your environment conducive to exercise. Leave notes reminding yourself to work out, for instance, and have your clothes ready ahead of time.
- Reward yourself for sticking to your plan.
- Think long-term. You're forming a lifelong habit here. No need to fret about a missed day; you have the next 50 years to make it up.
Stage 5: Maintenance
You've been exercising regularly for six months, and you've realized you can do it.
Strategy: Work Out the Kinks
- Create a mental image of yourself exercising and think of it often. This "exercise identity" will help the habit stick.
- Learn from your mistakes, and figure out how to avoid them next time.
- Watch for the benefits to happen -- less huffing and puffing, more energy -- and relish them.
Stage 6: Termination
You've done it! You've terminated your sedentary habits and replaced them with healthy ones. It's the end of the inactive you.
Strategy: Pat yourself on the back!
Christie Aschwanden is a freelance science writer in Nederland, Colo. Her work has appeared in Health, Modern Drug Discovery, and other publications.