Happy New Year! How are you feeling about your health and wellness resolutions? I know it’s trite for anyone in the exercise field to write about resolutions in January, but I really couldn’t help myself.
My husband Chris is a business and career coach—a success coach—who works with newer female business owners to help them make more money in less time and have an awesome life. He and I were asked to speak to a group in early January about “something that would be motivating and meaningful to them.” Until now, Chris and I had never presented together as a team. And in the beginning, we had NO idea what we would present. Then it bubbled up: Habits! Making and breaking habits was a topic central to both our practices and was perfectly suited for the New Year. Who isn’t interested in changing their habits—altering their behaviors—at work and in their health and wellness at the beginning of the New Year? So a co-presentation was born.
As a Medical Exercise Specialist, I usually work with people who have undergone a surgery or suffered some sort of injury requiring rehabilitation. I’m amazed daily at these individuals’ ability to conquer inertia and stay on their exercise regimen. At first, I was concerned that I would not have much to contribute to the presentation. After all, colleagues of mine that focus primarily on weight loss would find themselves up against bad habits more than I, right? Wrong! As Chris and I began to outline the presentation, it suddenly became clear to me that I go up against the Habit Monster every day.
The difference between, say, the success of most of my clients against bad habits and the struggle of those trying to tackle their weight lies largely in the person’s beliefs.
As Chris reminded me, everyone faces the same 4 components of the “Habit Loop,” proposed many years ago by William James:
First is the trigger: the perfect set of circumstances that sets the stage for the habit. Chris uses the example of feeling “fuzzy teeth” when you first wake, spurring you to brush your teeth. For many of my readers, it may be the stiffness that you first feel when you get out of bed, spurring you to do your stretches (often even before you address the fuzzy teeth.)
Next is the routine, or the actions you perform based on the trigger. In the examples above, the routine would be the actual brushing—I’ll bet you hold the brush in your hand and brush in the same order every time, don’t you? Or think of your stretches: you probably lie down in the same place, the same way, and proceed in the same order—every time. No thinking required—it’s like magic!
Third is the reward. You wouldn’t go through all of this trouble without one. Whether it’s the feeling of clean teeth and fresh breath in the first example, or the freedom of movement from the second example, something reminds you that this activity you just finished was a good one.
The last and final component of the habit loop is the over-arching belief. Belief is a powerful thing. I know you’ve heard this one from Henry Ford before: “Whether a man believes he can or can’t do a thing, he’s right!” Beliefs influence thinking, and thinking influences action, meaning that if I believe a new set of exercises will free me from stiffness and pain, then I think, “I can be free from stiffness and pain,” and therefore I will do my exercises. (This is a little over-simplified, but you get the idea.) In this context, it makes sense to me why most of the people I work with are so compliant with their exercises: 1. In many cases, they have prior experience from physical therapy that their exercises do, in fact, make them feel better, so the belief is already intact. 2. They have an all-too recent memory of the pain, discomfort, or disability that they had prior to getting on the exercise wagon, and they don’t’ want to go back there. So why doesn’t this work as reliably for everyone?
Let’s go back to beliefs. Some of you may believe that exercise won’t help you manage your discomfort or your condition because until now, it never has. In fact, for some of you, exercise may have been the very thing that led you to injury in the first place. What do you believe about exercise? Do you believe that it’s hard? That it will hurt? Do you believe that it might help others, but you’re different? Or do you believe that you’ve never been able to stick with it, so you couldn’t possibly stick with it now?
But you can stick with exercise now, and here are some tips to help you:
1. Pick a lane. What type of exercise do you want to you focus on first? If you try to start with cardio, strength training, and yoga, it’s too much –especially if you’re starting from scratch. Pick one. As you become successful with it, you can begin to add another. For example, if walking has always hurt your knee, first work on stabilizing and strengthening that knee. Let’s get that pain under control before you begin another walking program that could lead to frustration and disappointment. Work on those knee exercises for 6-8 weeks until doing them truly becomes a habit. Then, you can start your walking program.
2. Make it easy on yourself. Pick a goal that is very “do-able” in the beginning. You need some “wins” to reinforce your new belief that this time really is different. Maybe your first goal is to get 5 minutes of exercise three days a week. Once that becomes a habit, you might add a fourth day, and so on. The point is to make it very achievable so you will keep going.
3. Get some accountability. Here’s where a coach, a friend, a spouse (with permission to nag), or an appointment with your trainer comes in. If you know you must “answer to someone,” you’re much more likely to stay on the wagon. Holding yourself accountable is just not enough in the beginning.
Examining your beliefs can be very powerful when working toward changing your habits. This is a strategy for the long haul—success does not happen overnight. There will be slip-ups and back-slides, but remember, you have to keep getting back on that horse. Believe in yourself—you can be one of those people who enjoys the benefits of regular exercise! I hope that this is a great year for you. I hope you believe you can this year—whether it is summiting Kilimanjaro (a client of mine actually did that in 2013) or being able to enjoy cycling again without back or neck pain.
Happy New Year! Here’s to your health, happiness and good habits!