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10 Psychological Keys To Keeping Your Exercise Commitment…Or Building Any Other New Habits

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Can writing a check to an activist organization you dislike help you get more exercise?

Dr. Michael Asken, a psychologist with the Pennsylvania State Police, thinks so. That ploy is included among “effective strategies” he suggests for “increasing your chances of sticking to an exercise regimen.”

Research has shown that that isn’t easy. “Many people drop out after about 4 days,” Asken says. “They say hanging in takes willpower. But willpower is really a set of psychological factors or behavioral skills that allows someone to succeed.”

Appropriate to the start of the New Year, with good intentions and optimistic resolutions abounding, Force Science News asked Asken to elaborate on just what those factors are. They’re mentioned in a new book he has coauthored with Dr. Frank Masur, a sworn reserve officer and psychologist with the Memphis PD (Going Deep: Psychoemotional Stress & Survival in Undercover Policing).

“While individuals may prefer some techniques over others, these recommendations are based on research-derived principles of behavioral change that have been shown to work,” Asken says. “They apply to any exercise regimen, including the current move to ‘functional conditioning,’ where exercise mimics the physical skills needed on the job, and to new concepts like ‘muscle confusion.’ ”

Moreover, besides exercising, they can be adapted to help you achieve any other challenging behavioral change you may set for yourself.

1. GOAL SETTING

“Clearly defining goals is essential to any mission because goals provide direction and allow for feedback on your progress,” Asken says. “But research shows that some types of goals are better than others for staying involved with exercise.”

For instance, benchmarks that involve distance (running/jogging miles) and amounts (reps/weight lifted) tend to be more effective than those that specify time spent. “Distance and amounts are more concrete,” Asken says. “One more rep is a rep you can feel and you get immediate feedback, whereas time has a much vaguer psychological impact.

“Also, you’ll do better when you set your own goals than when you try to stick with goals set for you by someone else, even though you may want to consult with a fitness professional in formulating your plans.”

Set both short-term (per session, per day, per week) as well as long-term (monthly) goals and keep firmly in mind why you’re undertaking the effort. “Your motivation doesn’t have to be lofty. Maybe you just want to look good for the beach or awesome in the locker room. But your goal needs to be meaningful and important to you personally in order for you to stay committed.”

2. SPECIFICATION & SHAPING

Behavior that’s new and complex is best learned when you clearly define it and plan it out. “Something general, like ‘I’m going to workout more’ or ‘I’m going to start doing some aerobics’ is too vague,” Asken says. “Describe specifically what you want to accomplish.

“ ‘Shaping’ means that you construct a blueprint for getting there. Exercise especially should be broken down into small, achievable steps. Start with small successes and build on them. Gradual achievement increases motivation, compared to being too ambitious initially and failing.

“Be sure you’re doing your exercises correctly so you get the effect you want. If you’re sloppy you won’t get successes or you’ll get injured and that becomes negatively motivating.”

3. BEHAVIORAL CONTRACTING

“When you make a pledge verbally to other people or in writing, you are more likely to stick with your intentions,” Asken points out. “State what behavior you are working on and what your goal is, provide some approximate time line, describe what your reward is going to be for successfully completing each workout session and what sanctions you will impose on yourself if you give up and quit.

“Your penalty for quitting, incidentally, should be something you really don’t want to do—like taking over some onerous chore that your spouse detests doing for a year.

“A written contract should be signed, with someone important to you witnessing it. By making such a formal commitment, you’ll feel a greater need to live up to it. And it will serve as a prompt to bolster your compliance if you keep it in a place where you’ll see it on a regular basis.”

4. PROMPTS

A prompt is a signal or cue that reminds you that a behavior or action should occur. “When you’re trying to build new habits, it’s easy to forget things that are not well-practiced,” Asken observes, “plus you’re still bombarded by strong prompts for old preferred and easier behavior, like a soft sofa in front of the TV.”

Maybe a new prompt is as simple as entering an exercise appointment on your calendar or setting a reminder alarm on your cell phone or wearing a colored wristband or putting a fitness club logo on your refrigerator.

“It needs to be obvious, so you can’t miss it,” Asken stresses. “If you keep your exercise gear on your car seat, for example, it will remind you that exercising is now a part of your lifestyle. If you toss it in the back of your closet, that reflects a negative attitude about exercise and is not effective in promoting it.”

5. STIMULUS CONTROL

“Exercise will be enhanced in an environment that has many prompts or stimuli to exercise, like a gym with workout equipment, energizing music, other exercisers, et cetera,” Asken says. “Your motivation is likely to be decreased in an environment where you’re accustomed to doing other activities.

“You’re best to limit your workouts to one or a few settings with that in mind. If you’re exercising at home, do it in a spot where that’s all you do, not where you have a big recliner, a bar, video games, and other distractions that pull you toward other interests, like where you are used to sitting and socializing with friends.

“Also if you can arrange your workouts for the same time on the same days each week, this develops stimulus control and will make it easier to build the habit.”

6. SELF-TALK

The silent conversation you have with yourself in your head is “very powerful in affecting behavior,” Asken says, and with exercise and other activities that may not be much fun, “it’s easy for negative thoughts—so-called ‘stinkin’ thinkin’ ’—to sabotage your goals.”

Self-talk goes on all the time, he points out, “but we often are not focused on it.” Consciously tune into it, and beware especially of undermining dialogue like:

  • All or nothing thinking. If you don’t perform perfectly or you don’t exercise every day or you don’t improve with every session, you tell yourself it’s not worth doing at all.
  • Over-generalization. Because you hated running in the academy, you “know” you’re going to hate running in an exercise routine.
  • Catastrophizing. You exaggerate negatives to outlandish proportions. Because a time commitment is involved, you think that this is “going to interfere with everything else I like doing and be a tremendous waste of time and money.”

“Support positive associations by mentally reinforcing that you do feel better after you exercise, that you’re buying yourself good health benefits for the future, that fitness underscores better job performance and so on,” Asken suggests. “The thoughts you focus on should be personalized and connected to your goals.

“Positive self-talk doesn’t have to be unrealistically cheery. The important thing is to avoid, minimize, or replace negative and demotivating thoughts.”

7. MONITORING

Keep track of your exercising and the results. “Researchers have found that monitoring behavior tends to change it in the desired direction,” Asken explains. “It seems to be an issue of accountability. It’s harder for you to ignore slumping progress or efforts that didn’t happen, because what occurs is measured and recorded in black and white. This tends to make you try even harder.”

Two types of record keeping are suggested:

  • a log that you update immediately after an exercise to reinforce successes as you’re performing your workout, before you have time to forget or confuse results
  • a large wall chart or graph of your progress that you can update after each session and keep posted where you’ll see it frequently. This chart can be helpful in keeping you motivated, especially through plateau periods. “It may be hard to see or feel gains in your body when progress slows, but the chart can remind you that improvement, while subtle, is still being made,” Asken says.

Remember, though, if you fail to reach a goal or see a dip in your progress, “don’t over-react or exaggerate the problem or use it as an excuse to not go on,” Asken cautions. “Become a bit of a scientist and analyze rationally what has happened. Perhaps your goal is unrealistic and needs to be adjusted, or maybe you’ve slacked off in frequency, duration, or intensity without being consciously aware of it. Re-engineer your program to maximize success.”

8. REINFORCEMENT

“Reinforcement is anything that’s added to a situation that makes behavior more likely to reoccur,” Asken explains. “It’s critical to all human behavior. If what we do doesn’t get reinforced, we stop doing it.”

One option is to award yourself “points” for each exercise completed. Harder exercises or more effort can be worth more points. “When they accumulate to certain levels, these points can be traded in for a reward—something you want but wouldn’t normally buy for yourself,” Asken says. “Be smart about earning points, though. If they’re either too easy or too hard to win, you’ll lose interest.

“Besides these external motivators, don’t forget internal reinforcement like telling yourself you did a good job or pushed through or achieved a goal. You can also self-reinforce by doing the exercises you like least first, and then ‘reward’ yourself by going on to the ones you enjoy more and can’t wait to get to.

“It’s especially important to incorporate reinforcement into exercise programs because natural rewards may be few or slow in coming. In police training, many instructors use exercise as punishment—‘Drop and give me 10’ or they send trainees on a long run because of some infraction. This can create a life-long negative attitude toward exercise, so positive reinforcement becomes an important counter-balance.”

9. SOCIAL REINFORCEMENT

It’s best not to keep your exercise program a secret because recognition and support from other people who matter to you can provide valuable reinforcement to stick with it. Asken cites one study that found that having a significant person who supported an exerciser’s goals and commended efforts to reach them increased compliance with the program by a factor of 3.

“Get a buddy to exercise with and you can reinforce each other, encouraging each other to show up, giving praise to each other for success, and so on,” Asken suggests. “It may feel artificial at first, but this arrangement will take on a life of its own and become more natural.”

10. TEAMWORK

Finally, here’s where the gimmick with the check to an organization whose goals or methods you dislike comes in.

This works well when a group of officers agree to exercise together on a regular basis. Besides the opportunities for social reinforcement, it’s fun to add a little competition and consequences to the mix.

One strategy Asken likes is the “deposit technique.” At the beginning of the program, everybody “deposits” a given sum of money with a leader or “banker.” For every exercise session you complete, you get some of your money back. If you fail to show or don’t complete a workout, that portion of your deposit is forfeited.

The funds you deposit can be in the form of post-dated checks, all made out to a particular organization. After each successfully completed session, one of the checks is returned to you to tear up…or, if you don’t work the session, it’s sent by the banker to the organization you’ve named as payee.

“For peak motivation, make the checks payable to your least favorite organization,” Asken recommends. For some cops, that would be the ACLU. For others, it might be to a political party whose views they oppose.

“Sending money to a charity you support may make you feel good,” Asken explains, “but it won’t motivate you to work hard to hang onto it. By picking a disliked organization, you’ll work doubly hard to stay committed so your funds don’t go to there.”

If that’s too harsh for your taste, pool the money. For each session you attend and complete, you receive a “lottery ticket” in your name that’s dropped into a pot. At the end of the program, conduct a drawing, with the winner taking all.

“Obviously, the more sessions you’ve attended, the more tickets you’ll earn and the greater your chance of winning,” Asken says.

With that, Dr. Bill Lewinski and the staff and board members of Force Science wish you resounding success with whatever your goals may be for 2010.

And remember, of course: Before embarking on any exercise regimen, it’s a good idea to check with your personal physician.

[For information on reaching Dr. Asken or obtaining the the book, Going Deep: Psychoemotional Stress & Survival in Undercover Policing, visit: www.mindsighting.com. Asken is also author of the popular book MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations.]

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