5 STEPS TO MAKING A HABIT OF EXERCISE; do they apply to RUNNING and TRAINING?
AS JANUARY 1 APPROACHES New Year resolutions are starting to take form in the back of my mind. Holiday preparations and festivities are derailing my training and running program. My intentions are strong in the morning to get it done, but start to weaken as items on my "to do list' take more time and effort than I hoped. I promise myself that with the beginning of 2016, I'll be all in! But will I? What can help me make the new routine a habit?
There are general recommendations that are frequently proposed in articles to help occasional exercisers become regular exercisers. I recently read a very nice piece by Mackenzie Lobby Havey who posted “Your 5-Step Plan For Making Exercise a Habit” on MyFitnessPal.com.
I wondered whether these or similar recommendations apply specifically to non-runners or occasional runners who start training programs. Will taking these steps INCREASE THE CHANCES that they stick with the PROGRAM, make training a HABIT, and run their GOAL RACE? Do the research studies that are referenced pertain to running and training? Reading an article that quotes research findings can be disheartening if those findings run contrary to the runner’s own experience. If “research” says it’s true, who’s to argue? As is the case with all research, the DETAILS of each study, especially the METHODS used to test a hypothesis, can tell a story that may not be so discouraging.
The 5 steps include:
1. Setting goals
2. Including a mixture of exercise activities rather than just one
3. Recording progress
4. Building rewards into a plan
5. Involving family and friends
I’d like to take a closer look at the research behind these recommendations and discuss how they might apply to RUNNERS wishing to make TRAINING a habit.
SETTING GOALS; YES! The cited research demonstrated that goal setting increased adherence to exercise. The 1997 study involved participants in Tae Kwan Do and aerobics classes. Participants who rated GOALS, especially intrinsic (that you value) rather than extrinsic (what you think others value), as more influential and LIKELY OF BEING ACHIEVED showed greater persistence in pursuing an exercise program. I fully agree that this approach WORKS for runners! Identifying a specific race you wish to run (like a local St. Patrick's Day 10k) or a distance to cover (5 miles) allows you to PERSEVERE over weeks of training, despite setbacks, to reach a REASONABLE goal.
MIXING UP ACTIVITIES: MAYBE. This study involved participants in an aerobics class who performed the SAME one exercise for 8 weeks (static group), were told to CHANGE activities after 2 weeks (variable group), and who were free to change exercises AT WILL (preferred group). Measures of adherence and other qualities like cardiovascular fitness and boredom were examined. Results indicated that the VARIABLE group that was told to change activities showed INCREASED adherence to exercise as compared to the preferred group, but was NOT DIFFERENT than the STATIC group that performed the same exercise. There were NO significant differences in boredom among the 3 groups. MY TAKE: Many, many runners are just fine with their ONE favorite activity, RUNNING!. Like the static group in this research study they have no problem adhering to a plan that calls for just running! They need to be convinced that other exercise activities are important. As the study showed, however, rather than randomly changing activities at will (preferred group), it HELPS ADHERENCE to be TOLD to change activities, like a TRAINING PLAN does. Hopefully the plan convinces runners that strength, balance, foam rolling, and stretching routines not only help them become BETTER AT RUNNING but decreases their risk of injury and increases the flexibility that improves performance in all other sports and LIFE ACTIVITIES as well.
REWARDING YOURSELF: MAYBE. The article says that research shows INCENTIVES can improve commitment to exercise. In the study, published in 1992, university students in the experimental group contracted for a CASH payment to engage in at least 4 weekly aerobic exercise sessions within a prescribed target heart rate range, for 6 months. The money could be lost if the students failed to fulfill the weekly contracts. The comparison group had NO CASH promise. Adherence was measured at 97% in the experimental group and 19% in the comparison group. WOW! Measures of fitness IMPROVEMENT increased significantly in the experimental (CASH) group but not the comparison (no cash) group. DUH! I FULLY AGREE that in addition to the intrinsic rewards of running a goal race, the promise of a new pair of great shoes, apparel, or gear for such an accomplishment is a wonderful incentive. Rewards after EACH run, especially of food, are NOT a good idea. Running in support of a cause can be an incentive too. It’s almost the opposite of a cash reward, but FULFILLING A PROMISE to do something difficult can be a powerful reason to carry on too.
RECORDING PROGRESS: YES! This study involved low-active older adults, 65 years old who were given exercise prescriptions for walking at a doctor’s office visit, without (standard group) and with a pedometer (pedometer group). The pedometer group prescription goals were based on steps; participants were encouraged to use their pedometer to monitor steps taken throughout the day. The standard group prescription was based on accumulating physical activity around time-related goals rather than step-related goals. After 3 months, an INCREASE in leisure walking was noted for BOTH groups, that of the PEDOMETER group was MORE THAN DOUBLE that of the standard group; both groups mostly MAINTAINED their increases over 12 months. I FULLY AGREE. This study actually speaks to the positive effect of measuring each session’s work for all age groups! A phone app or wearable device that records distance, time, or steps, etc. can potentially make a big difference in increasing effort level AND it can track progress toward a goal.
RECRUITING support from FRIENDS AND FAMILY: MAYBE. This study from 1995 involved 50-65 year old participants and measured exercise adherence. Only the abstract was available, so details are scarce. Results indicated that exercise adherence was better with social support given specifically for exercise compared with that given generally. In the FIRST 6 months of the program, adherence was BETTER for those who preferred a LESSER amount of support from exercise staff. In the second 6 month period it was better for those who received support from BOTH family/friends and exercise staff. Home-based programs were associated with greater adherence. I AGREE WITH what the study seems to show, that initially it may be better to quietly decide to commit to a goal and start moving forward without a lot of attention and hoopla. There’s plenty of time (after 6 months?) to garner outside support specifically for running, after a few low-level goals have been met to increase individual confidence (getting out regularly, following a plan, etc.) that the ultimate goal is within reach. WHAT’S NEEDED INITIALLY may be an internal commitment to a reasonable goal. AFTER THAT friends and family may be your biggest BOOSTERS toward success.
It seems, based on all this research, that, in terms of making running/training a HABIT:
- APPROPRIATELY-TIMED social SUPPORT and REWARDS can create incentives to persevere
- Using a TRACK-ABLE PLAN with MEASURABLE WORKOUTS can help reach goals
- MIXING PRESCRIBED ACTIVITIES, running and non-running, can increase adherence to training
Ms Havey's article goes on to say that incorporating a training workout into most days will make it routine (the reference says about 66 days) especially if it is repeated in a consistent context (in the morning, for example). Skipping one day did not materially affect the habit formation process in the study. In my experience, there should be minimal thinking/deciding involved in accomplishing a workout. KNOWING THE NEXT DAY’S prescribed session, getting mentally and physically PREPARED the night before by ASSEMBLING needed gear/food, and setting a REMINDER alarm regardless of when in the day it is scheduled, are all STEPS that will help get a runner out the door and on the road, track, or exercise floor for that particular workout.
HAPPY RUNNING EVERYONE!
NOTE: Thanks to Ms. Lobby Havey for her thoughtful article and references. It’s much easier to edit someone’s work than create an original work, and she provided the intellectual content for me to discuss.
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EARNED RUNS is edited and authored by me, runner and founder. In 1978 I began participating in 10K road races before 5Ks were common. I've been a dietitian, practiced and taught clinical pathology, and been involved with research that utilized pathology. I am fascinated with understanding the origins of disease as well as health and longevity.
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