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Starting a New Health & Fitness Program -- Part 2: The Stages of Change

Updated: May 3, 2020

You want to start a new exercise or nutrition program to improve your health and fitness. But getting a new plan to stick is so difficult. In Part 1, we examined how important it is to take inventory of your mindset and make changes to it, if needed.

In order to change your mindset, it’s important to first understand how people change. The gold standard utilized by professionals in behavioral psychology for this process is the Transtheoretical Model of Change (TTM) -- a system of behavioral modification developed by psychologists James Prochaska, PhD, John Norcross, PhD, and Carlo DiClemente, PhD.

The name of the concept sounds complicated, but its guiding principle is simple: If you’ve had trouble starting (or restarting, or even if you are a serial restarter...) an exercise or nutrition program previously, the first step is to figure out where your head is.

Self-proclaimed health, fitness, and personal improvement gurus often tout that change can be instantaneous. By sheer willpower -- on any given day -- it is promised, you can cast aside old habit and behaviors (such as eating junk food, or marathon coach surfing) and automatically adopt new ones (like food prepping healthy meals or daily cardio).

While a person may recall the day/moment they chose to take action to make a change, chances are they spent a fair amount of time going through the staged, mental process of TTM -- perhaps subconsciously.

TTM asserts that changing behavior a multistage process.

“The key is always to use the right strategy at the right time.” ~Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente in Changing for Good

The Six Stages of Behavior Change

The TTM model identifies six stages of behavior change:

  • Precontemplation: You don’t recognize the need to change — and may resist it.

  • Contemplation: You understand that you need to change.

  • Preparation: You’re ready to take action and begin planning.

  • Action: You implement your plan.

  • Maintenance: You consolidate the gains you’ve made.

  • Termination: Your new behavior is habitual.

Linear is Unlikely

Even though the process sounds linear, it is more likely that you may jump from one phase to another, and even backwards, a number of times before achieving the Termination (new habit) phase. For instance, you might decide to begin working out -- even meet with your fitness coach for awhile -- only to put your exercise program on hold for a few weeks or more.

Many people view this as a failure or lack of willpower. Some will internalize this as more evidence that they incapable of exercising. But experiencing relapse is part of the cycle of change -- not a failure. It is more of a recycle through the phases and an opportunity to learn what works best for you.

Setbacks are a part of the process, you’re more likely to return to, and stick with, the new program. Expect your progress to be somewhat nonlinear.

"Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." ~ Henry Ford

The Right Step at the Right Time

TTM also suggests that people who have trouble adopting a new program may be taking the wrong type of action at the wrong time. For example, a person may design plans they aren’t ready to implement. Perhaps they stop blocking out time for workouts before exercising becomes an established the habit. This person has gone from the Contemplation stage straight to the Action stage without working through the Planning stage, and will likely experience some setbacks.

Getting new habits to stick is hard for everyone. As a matter of fact, the failure rate for New Year's resolutions is said to be about 80 percent, with most losing their resolve by mid-February (U.S. News & World Report, 2018).

Stick With the Learning Process

Be good to yourself when setting new health and fitness goals. Start by taking inventory of your personal, long-held truths and inner "stories". Examine where a mindset shift is in order. Identify the TTM phase you’re currently experiencing and consider what you need to work on to reach the next stage of change.

Be patient with your progress. Consistent, sustainable change takes time to conquer. Remember to ask for help -- especially if you are feeling lost, frustrated, or stuck. Reaching out to a health professional who also specializes in behavioral change can not only help provide solutions for your nutrition and/or fitness, but also help you work through the mindset shifts and stages of change necessary to make your healthy habits stick for good.

~Dolores Harrell, CHC, CPT, CN, TES

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