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Start Small continued...

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.

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