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Want to Get Fit? Change the Way You Think!

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

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.

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