Regular Exercise Habits: How do we form them and how do we sustain them?
After years of the regular exercise habit of weekly running I have stopped. The regular exercise habit just fell away. It was not as “baked in” to my week.
Why did I keep going for over 10 years only to trip, stumble and fall now?
This matters to me, partly due to the relative lack of aerobic exercise in my life since I stopped teaching cardio classes. It is partly because it is helpful to think about why people may or may not establish the habit of regular Pilates. I have spent years, near to 20, worrying about why people come to a class once or twice and then never return. Mostly I blame myself for not being good enough and when I’m not doing that I am trying not to dwell upon the situation at all. When I am not in such a self deprecating mood I tell myself it is because “life gets in the way”.
However recently due to the total loss of my running habit I’ve pondered whether there might be more to it than that. Maybe other people’s regular exercise habit of Pilates is as fragile as my running is. Or was.
Why did I stop my regular exercise habit?
At the beginning of this year I was already struggling to maintain a habit of one weekly Sunday run, in part because I found it a bit of a chore. However, mostly I just got on with it. Then, in April and May I was ill with a virus and was too ill to run and that ruined the regular habit.
However, why not just restart? How did the regular running cease?
This is key: I lost the regular exercise habit.
I lost so much fitness it became harder work. I was more breathless and on the couple of occasions that I tried I just huffed and puffed my way around a very short course. This is a real impediment for me because it feels demanding which then irritates me
Next came the Excuses….
The little items of self sabotage crept in: It is too hot. The only one that is reasonable but only partially. I could go slowly or wait till it cools down. Alison, you do not live in Saudi Arabia
It is too Wet. Get a grip Alison, we are in a drought. Presumably I haven’t used this one much but I know I have on at least one occasion.
I am too busy. Alison you are not that busy to spare 30 minutes on a Sunday
I am too stressed out. This is the stupidest, right? If anything is likely to detach me from the stress it is going on a run. Weirdly this is a common excuse for me. It happens if I am having a difficult day with my mother (who is extremely ill with end stage Multiple Sclerosis and who also now has Dementia). I’ve kind of worked this out: although running does make me feel better I cannot cope with the discipline of getting sorted and out of the door. It is just too much to deal with, along with everything else, strange though that sounds
What’s the point? Both of my parents were struck down by chronic illness later in life and both had the worst of the worst iterations of their diagnoses. My mother’s MS is so severe the she is paralysed pretty much from the neck down, she struggles to speak and now has significant memory deficit. My father had Pick’s Disease. It was unbelievably severe in the last year of his life and I am deeply affected by what happened. I really do think: “what is the point in having a healthy lifestyle?” If I get their diagnosis (although the older I get the less likely MS is to strike ) I am booking a ticket to Dignitas. For Real. There is a little bit of an existential crisis here, but with a dose of self sabotage.
Why did I start in the first place?
I cannot properly remember. I think that I had passed my driving test and was rushing about on foot far less, and I’d reduced the number of Cardio classes I taught each week in favour of teaching Pilates. At that time, around 10 years ago I didn’t cycle at all.
Probably a more important question: Why bother to restart?
I walk and cycle regularly . I have talked about regular walking here https://www.pilates-leeds.com/walking-back-to-happiness/
Isn’t walking enough? Well no it isn’t, not for my bone density. I am 55 and not currently on HRT . My thigh bones need maintenance. I visit the gym and lift weights but only once per week.
People think I do loads of Pilates but I don’t. I teach a lot but do very little. I do my utmost to do 90 Pilates minutes per week. It isn’t much is it? As soon as I start I get preoccupied by either thinking about how I might teach the exercise better . Alternatively I get thoroughly anxious about not doing the exercise well enough or properly (partly due to chronic injury that I can’t do anything about).
I am more content doing regular Yoga. That way I can experience teachers who have a different perspective on exercise and the body, whilst getting on with it and not worrying about anything else.
Anyway, back to my thigh bones. They need load. So I can do Deadlift type exercises and/or loads of brisk walking and/or some running. I don’t have time for enough brisk walking. Cycling won’t help. I have written about this in another post https://www.pilates-leeds.com/why-i-have-decided-to-walk-more-cycle-less-and-run-less/
Running is be a super efficient way of loading the bones if you are able to run and I am
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is an inner desire or need to complete a task or develop a habit. So becoming more healthy, feeling better, enjoying it, getting fitter would all be intrinsic motivators
Extrinsic motivators are those that come from elsewhere. For example, buddying up with someone and running so as not to let them down.
There is a bit more detail on this important habit related topic here: https://www.verywellmind.com/differences-between-extrinsic-and-intrinsic-motivation-2795384
I am clearly struggling to find intrinsic motivation and lack any extrinsic motivations
“because it is good for me” is not currently enough to overcome the barriers of loss of habit and loss of fitness. I enjoy it less because it am less fit so I lack that motivator
Feeling smug and healthy after I come back? Not doing it for me.
In fact, half of me wants to dip a toe into the world of drunken debauchery, which is a whole other story I suppose! I give the impression of being healthy and am perhaps, becoming rather puritanical as I get older. Maybe I always was? I don’t really drink or smoke. My diet is very limited indeed but what little variety there is, is healthy wholefood. The aim is always for sleep is 7 hours per night. Regarding that most modern of risk factors for poor health, being sedentary: I am not
I have no extrinsic motivation at the moment. . I am not going to let anyone down if I don’t do it. No one will know. If they did, they wouldn’t care
What might work as Extrinsic Motivation to re-establish my regular exercise habit?
- join a running club. I really have no time due to working weekday evenings
- use the treadmill in my gym. It is too far away. I might as well run there.
- run with a friend or a neighbour. interesting idea, although 50 % of my Sundays are spent in Bakewell.
- train for a Triathlon. Well that would be the nuclear option, however I can’t swim well enough and would need lessons so it won’t work. That idea is dead in the water, you might say
So far so not really working, but this one….. this one has legs (just like the ones I have but don’t use enough)
- sign up with StickK. This is a fascinating option. I could subcontract out the extrinsic motivation to the StickK app. It goes like this. You sign up, create an account and state your aim and then you state what you will do if you DO NOT stick at your habit. Hence the name : this is a publicly available stick and not at all a carrot. For example, I could donate money to an organisation I detest if I don’t run 3 Sundays out of 4. There is more detail here: https://www.stickk.com. I am trying to think of a hated organisation right now. I could donate to some kind of Far Right policical allliance or a Climate Change denial organisation. I rather like the latter. That might be the one for me
Sustaining the habit of not smoking. I do manage this one
Extrinsic motivation: My children don’t like it.
Intrinsic motivation: I really do think it is bad for me and I am one of the happy few who can smoke the odd ciggy and not lapse back into it being a regular thing
Why do I stick to my other regular exercise habit?
Weekly gym: I enjoy it and go with my son. What will happen when he goes to Uni later this month? Not sure….
Twice weekly yoga: It is online so no time spent community. They are in the diary and everything is organised around it.
Regular walks: They are in the diary 3 mornings a week and for one I meet a friend.
Regular cycling: I am trying to give up driving and so I have to, absolutely, cycle. I enjoy it most of the time and it also gives me a cardio workout. This is important now I no longer teach cardio classes
What other things might help me to restart my Habit? More crucially than that, maintain it?
My inspiration for these tips came from a book I have read entitled Better than Before: Mastering the Habits our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. She is a go-to person for practical life tips which are tried, tested and have some kind of evidence behind them. She’s worth looking up, and has also written best selling books about being happy. This is her website https://gretchenrubin.com/
Her approach is careful, considered and strategic. Analyse, monitor, schedule, accountability.
The Four Tendencies
Although she goes into vastly more detail on this, Rubin talks about how personality affects habits. Whether or not you are the kind of person who sticks to plans, rules, etc , whether you are the kind to do something in order to help or be accountable to someone else, as opposed to doing something for yourself or for its own sake. It is a very important matter and it is worth knowing what “type” you are. You can find out using Rubin’s free online quiz https://gretchenrubin.com/take-the-quiz
The types are known as the Four Tendencies and the reason why it is important is because it will dictates what nudges will help you best maintain your habits.
I reckon I’m an Obliger with Questioner tendencies, but I’m not totally sure
I have decided to schedule my running and write it in my diary. That is how I stick to my other exercise habits: they are baked into my weekly schedule. so I’m trying it for this too. When I’m in Bakewell I’ve decided to go when my mother’s teatime carer arrives. Non Bakewell Sunday: I reckon first thing in the morning might be best .
Big vs Little goals. I’m going little: to get out of the door each week and if necessary just trot around for 15 minutes. I am a small steps kind of person. Training for a marathon doesn’t interest me although I totally get why it would for some people
I have the amorphous goal of being more healthy, specifically to maintain bone density in my thighs and pelvis, but I have no way to measure that. I have no baseline Dexa scan reading (the standard way of measuring bone density in the UK) , nor am I likely to get one. There is no accountability via concrete measurements. I no person to be accountable to. For accountability it will be StickK for me although I have not signed up yet
Conclusion: There is more to this regular exercise habit malarkey than initially meets the eye.
Doing something to “be more healthy” rarely works. Most of us need more encouragement than that, or, an extremely good reason. Back when I was a Medical Secretary for a Cardiac Surgeon, I remember him saying that the people who did best at giving up smoking were the ones who’d had a heart attack, survived and subsequently received bypass surgery or stents placed in their coronary arteries. Their experience was life changing and they acted upon that
It has been helpful to understand that my loss of good habits is quite normal and there are many strategies to help me get back to it. I am not alone. How reassuring is that? And you, dear reader, can find many fabulous reasons and strategies for attending your Pilates class each week.
Does she have the regular Exercise Habit? Image courtesy of Intographics on Pixabay