It may be hard to believe that someone can go from dreading exercise to dreading a day that passes without it. But that's just what happened to me. • Learning to love exercise wasn't a miraculous conversion, but a gradual evolution that could happen for anyone. I'm proof. • In younger years, I avoided gym classes, team sports and the outdoors. Like a lot of my friends, I just didn't want to exert myself. • But by the time I was in graduate school, I was having problems controlling my asthma. All that sitting and studying was having an impact on my weight, too. I knew the trend wasn't good. • I started to realize that I wanted not only to be lean, but also fit for the rest of my life. I wanted to be stronger and have more endurance.
One of the good things about studying psychology was that I knew none of this would happen if I didn't change my attitude and thinking about physical activity. But that didn't mean I instantly knew how to do it.
Sure, you can grit your teeth and make yourself do something you don't want to do. But that's not the route to permanent change. I wanted to learn to actually like activity.
Looking back, I realized that the reason I learned to love activity is because I didn't go looking for a magical solution. Instead, I systematically incorporated gradual changes that I knew I could handle. As I succeeded at each one, I found that I was eager for new challenges. Here are the specific steps I took:
1. Embrace the process: Understanding that change takes time is important. I wanted to get into jogging and had noticed plenty of runners seemingly floating around a 1-mile course on campus. But could I do the same with no exercise history whatsoever? I decided that running a mile without stopping would be a goal I would reach gradually. I alternated between jogging and walking based on my comfort level, increasing the jogging by as little as a few seconds at a time until I was able to jog nonstop for 1 mile.
2. Accept the difficulty: It takes at least some effort to make changes. But the effort shouldn't be excessive. Pace yourself based on your condition and gently coax yourself to the next level. It's not about "No pain, no gain." It's more like, "Comfort and vigor (minus pain) leads to steady gain."
3. Pay attention to thoughts. Does any of this sound familiar: "This is going to be so hard!" "The end of the course is so far away!" "I hate exercise."
That's what I was thinking. But I decided to catch those self-defeating statements and turn them around — even if I didn't really believe the new version yet.
"Focus on the present moment, slow down if you need to, but just keep moving forward,'' I would tell myself. "You'll get better and better." With time, the new positive statements replace the old negative thoughts.
4. Don't impose strict deadlines: It took me a year to jog a full mile without stopping. But that was back in the mid 1970s, and I've been exercising regularly ever since, so who cares how long it took?
If I had put strict expectations on myself I would probably still be where I started. It was slow but it worked.
It's better to focus on taking one step at a time instead of setting deadlines when making major lifestyle changes. You don't need to keep up with or compete with anyone.
I've tried different activities through the years but I've never wanted to stop exercising. My asthma — my main inspiration to get fit — has disappeared.
Walking is my activity of choice because it's inexpensive, it's meditative and I can do it anywhere. I enjoy my daily hour of time alone to think, watch nature and greet my neighbors. Exercising is one of the best pleasures in my life, and I hope that it can become just as much of a joy for you, too.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Barriers to Weight Management." She can be reached through her website: FatMatters.com.