You are the product of many years of acting in a certain way, doing the same routines over and over, and developing strong likes and dislikes. Many of these behaviors make life meaningful and enjoyable. Some of these behaviors, however, may put your health at risk. Behaviors that have a positive impact on your health include exercising regularly, eating nutritiously, and avoiding destructive habits like smoking.
You may be motivated to change, but making behavior changes can be very difficult. It’s easy to resist changes by making excuses, blaming others, or denying that you need to change. “I don’t have time to exercise,” or “Everyone in my family is fat, so I don’t have a chance,” or “My uncle Earl lived to be 110, and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, so why should I stop smoking?” These are some common responses when people feel they can’t or don’t want to change.
You may have heard it takes 21 days to develop a habit. This theory was first introduced by a plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who found it took 21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations in an amputated limb. In a book published in the ‘70s, “Psycho-Cybernetics,” he claimed it takes the human mind about 21 days to adjust to a major life change. Since then, the “21 Day Habit Theory” has become an accepted part of many self-help programs. Because the theory was based more on empirical observation rather than actual research, some researchers have questioned the validity of these findings.
Scientific or not, I think 21 days will definitely give you a good start and help develop a pattern. Other organizations, including AA, have successfully helped people change destructive habits by focusing on making commitments only one day at a time. I’m often asked how to develop the exercise habit. My usual answer is you just have to do it and do it often enough to make it routine. You may be setting yourself up for failure though if you think of it as a “habit.” Think more about creating a routine or a ritual. Rituals or routines are deliberate, purposeful, goal-oriented acts. Habits are normally mindless, automatic behaviors, like biting your nails.
Change can be difficult, and maintaining change is even more difficult. Too often we want to change, but our actions don’t match our desire. As a personal trainer, it is beneficial for me to know at what stage of readiness to change is my client. The transtheoretical model is used in health psychology, finding that individuals move through a series of five stages in the adoption and cessation of behaviors. If you desire to change, it’s important to know at what stage you are. Where are you?
— Pre-contemplation: Not yet acknowledging or denying that there is a problem. I can’t help anyone in this stage. Only honest self-evaluation and education of your needs will move you to the next stage.
— Contemplation: Acknowledging that there is a problem, but not yet ready to change. It might take a couple weeks or as long as a lifetime to get through this stage. Many people actually do procrastinate until they die, without ever taking action.
— Preparation: Planning to act within 30 days or less. This is the determination, information gathering, and getting ready to change stage.
— Action: Doing it, changing behavior. This is the stage when action is taken and may last just for a short time or 6 months or longer until you hopefully move to the maintenance stage.
— Maintenance: Maintaining the behavior change. Temptation to quit may be present in the maintenance stage, but you will be able to cope with it and resist. This often proves to be the toughest stage, but the longer you stay in the maintenance stage, the more likely your new behavior will stay with you.
After the maintenance stage can be the termination/relapse stage, where you return to older behaviors and abandon the new changes. It is normal to backslide when making behavior changes. You may attain one stage only to fall back to a previous stage. Even in a single day you may go through several different stages of change. When this happens, accept that you are only human, and the sooner you get back on track, the easier it will be to succeed.
Perry Buchanan, owner of PT Gym, is certified as Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine, and Fitness Nutrition Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He has been in the fitness industry for over 35 years.