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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.

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