How to develop a fitness mind-set; no matter how close you are to working out and eating right, these easy-to-implement steps will translate thought into concrete action - Mind

How to develop a fitness mind-set; no matter how close you are to working out and eating right, these easy-to-implement steps will translate thought into concrete action - MindFor years, University of Rhode Island psychologist James Prochaska, Ph.D., has studied how people overcome bad habits. Whether quitting drugs or alcohol, eating better or sticking to a fitness plan, every guy ends up following the same path in turning his life around, Prochaska and his colleagues have found. In the book Changing for Good, Prochaska and two fellow psychologists describe the six stages that one must go through when making a lifestyle alteration. The key to permanent change, they maintain, is to master each stage in turn, without trying to skip ahead.

Naturally, we asked Prochaska to explain how these findings can be applied to getting and maintaining better fitness habits. No matter where you are on the scale--a confirmed easy-chair lounger; a guy who's been thinking about getting into shape; someone who's just started a fitness program; or a workout veteran--you can make it to the next stage, and the next, by following this plan.


Where you are: You don't work out and your diet isn't as good as it could be. But if you weren't considering making a change, you wouldn't have picked up this copy of MEN'S FITNESS. Still, without a new way of thinking, you're not likely to take action.

What to do: The most likely problem at this point, Prochaska says, is that you underestimate the benefits of being fit and you overestimate the costs. "If you asked a couch potato to list the benefits of exercise, he might come up with five or six, when there are actually 10 times that many. If we can get him just to double the number of benefits he's aware of, it's usually enough to get him to think about making a change."

To help you on your way, here are 16 scientifically verified benefits of fitness: 1) added strength; 2) more energy; 3) better looks; 4) less chance of depression; 5) reduced risk of illness; 6) increased self-esteem; 7) decreased stress; 8) higher testosterone levels; 9) a better sex life; 10) greater mental clarity as you age; 11) lower blood pressure; 12) lower "bad" cholesterol; 13) higher "good" cholesterol; 14) less chance of heart disease; 15) faster metabolism; 16) lower body fat. There are plenty more, but you get the idea.


Where you are: You're seriously thinking of joining a gym and chucking your Fritos habit, but somehow you just haven't done it yet. "What happens at this stage is that perceived costs must come down for someone to progress to action," Prochaska says. "We have to lower the `cons.' And the No. 1 cost or barrier to staying on a regular exercise program is time."

What to do: Of course, working out does take time. But once you realize how much better your life can be as a result of putting in that time, you can't help but think it's worth it. Says Prochaska, "One of the things we do is say, `Do you like bargains?' Well, exercise is the bargain basement of behaviors--there's nothing you can do for 60 minutes with more benefits.' If a person is aware he can get 50 benefits for 60 minutes of his time, then time goes down as a barrier."


Where you are: Now you've made a vow to take action. You're ready to start exercising and eating a healthier diet. Unfortunately, Prochaska says, good intentions aren't enough--it's possible to get stuck at this point as well. "One of the greatest concerns at this stage is that a person will take action but ultimately fail, rather than maintaining the new behaviors." As a result, he says, that person may never even get started.

What to do: The more you prepare, the better your chances of succeeding. The first step is determining all the details of your plan where you'll work out, how you'll set aside blocks of time, what kind of equipment you'll need. Think about what you want to get out of the program and set both short-term and long-term goals. Perhaps most important, Prochaska says, make your resolution to keep fit public. "We encourage people to share their commitment with others, because that will strengthen their willpower." Tell your friends you're going to start shaping up; join a health club; even take fitness classes with others as a way of demonstrating your resolve. Once you've done all that, the next step is simple.


Where you are: You're doing it--lifting weights, getting in some aerobics, and eating plenty of lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Congratulations. This means you'll keep up a healthful lifestyle forever, right? Uh, wrong. "The danger at this stage is that motivation can decrease over time," Prochaska says. The initial excitement ebbs, or the whole thing seems to be a real hassle, and your program suddenly starts to slip away from you. Fortunately, if you stay vigilant, this can be prevented.

What to do: "It's important to keep the benefits in mind and realize the rewards you're getting," Prochaska says. "It can help to think of each new benefit you're working toward: This week I'm working for my heart. This week I'm working for my immune system. This week I'm working for my sex life. This week I'm working for my self-esteem. If you constantly strive for new goals, you can motivate yourself indefinitely."


Where you are: You've been exercising regularly and eating well for six months. You now know what you're capable of, and you don't have to work as hard psychologically to keep going. But even now, you have to guard against a possible relapse. "A person is most in danger of losing his fitness program during particularly stressful times, when he's depressed or not feeling well," Prochaska says. "He may fall back into old ways of coping with emotional distress, such as consuming junk food or alcohol."

What to do: If this happens, you need to realize that exercise itself is a terrific way of managing depression and stress. If you can get yourself to a workout and feel how much better things seem afterward, you won't be so tempted to opt for less healthy ways of coping. You should also have other strategies for dealing with stress, Prochaska says, including getting social support--from friends, a spouse, or a therapist or counselor--and trying some form of relaxation, such as meditation or yoga. "You need to teach yourself you can cope with difficult times without going back to bad habits."


Where you are: You've finally reached the ideal stage, the point where healthy behaviors have become an integrated part of your life. But while it's now easier to keep going, you still have to beware of slacking off. You might find yourself missing a workout here and there, heading down the slippery slope toward relapse.

What to do: To keep from backtracking even the slightest, it helps to maintain a certain amount of discipline. "People whose behaviors are under `rule' control are less likely to relapse than those who leave things under `decision' control," Prochaska says.

In other words, if you say to yourself, "I'm going to exercise for 45 minutes three times a week, no matter what," you're a lot more likely to follow through than if you say, "Hmm, do I feel like exercising today?" That's also why people are more likely to scarf stomach-expanding foods when they eat out, Prochaska adds. "There's a lot more decision control in a restaurant. But you can still set rules about unhealthy foods you aren't going to eat."

Next, focus on how fitness improves your life. "The more you've internalized the benefits at this point, the better," Prochaska says. If you think you're exercising solely for weight loss, you're more likely to stop as the weight goes down. But if you're exercising for yourself and experiencing all the benefits as they happen, you're likely to stick with it.

As you progress through these stages, it's important not to skip any of them, and make sure you're stabilized in one before moving on to the next. Fortunately, Prochaska says, the latest research shows that people can change multiple behavioral patterns as effectively as they can a single one. For instance, you might get serious about your workout program, forgo junk food, and cut out the six-pack Saturday nights all at once. And it doesn't matter if you're at a different stage for each one, as long as you deal with each issue at that stage and progress step-by-step.

"You might be progressing to a new stage for your diet while you're stabilizing a current stage for your exercise plan," Prochaska says. Upgrade gradually, and eventually you'll enjoy the lifestyle benefits you've always wanted.