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Stages of Change

Harry Mills, Ph.D.

As is the case with many lifestyle changes, fully committing to an ongoing exercise program is not something most people do instantly. Rather, most people tend to go through a series of engagement stages during which they learn about and evaluate how exercise will affect them. These engagement stages tend to go something like this:

Challenge. Inactive people usually begin to exercise as a result of being challenged by a moment of realization of how out of shape they have become. That moment might occur when someone finds themselves winded after climbing a flight of stairs or moving furniture, or when they realize they have gained back all the weight they lost. It is very common to become challenged by reading about the health risks of a inactive life (as you are doing now). In the challenge stage a person moves from not thinking about exercise to considering making a change. They may not know how it all works, but they become willing to give it a try.

Awareness. During the awareness stage a person actively seeks to learn more about the benefits of exercise and the risks of an inactive lifestyle (The fact that you are continuing to read this document suggests you are in the awareness stage). Your choice to learn as much as possible about healthy exercise choices will lay an excellent foundation for your successful change.

There are numerous ways to learn about healthy exercise choices. You can read books and web-pages (like this one), talk to friends or watch TV programs to learn more about the kinds of exercise that might interest you. The most important thing that needs to happen during the awareness stage is for you to identify a type of exercise (such as running, swimming, walking, weight training, etc.) that seems interesting enough to pursue.

Preparation. You will move beyond awareness to the preparation stage when you begin to make specific plans to start your exercise program. For example, preparing to start a jogging exercise program might involve purchasing a pair of appropriate running shoes. Joining a gym would be another good sign you were preparing to exercise.

An important part of the preparation stage is to break one's plan down into manageable and achievable steps. Don't expect yourself to become a 'super-exerciser' all at once. Rather, aim for a graduated plan where you start small and work your way up to more strenuous efforts. Try to do too much too fast and you may fail.

Action. You actually begin your exercise program in the action stage. If you've done your preparation stage properly, you've created an exercise plan consisting of stages, complete with milestones you can celebrate when you reach them, and ways of rewarding yourself for progress.

It's a good idea to keep written records of your exercise activities. Such records will help you to visualize your progress and motivate further progress. Your record could be a simple notation of days you exercised and those you didn't, or it could be a complex affair wherein you note the exact weight and numbers of repetitions of each set you attempt during a strength training program; it's up to you how complete you want to be. There is no need for detail if you don't think you'll need it. However simple your record ends up being, we urge you to consider writing down how you felt after working out so that you can track the relationship between working out and your mood.

Maintaining your gains. The final stage occurs as you realize that it is very hard to keep yourself consistently in the action stage. You may very well lapse in your program and stop exercising. If this happens, keep in mind that change does not occur in a straight line. Rather, it tends to look more like a spiral. After a setback you may need to spiral back to awareness and through preparation.

Setbacks are very common so expect them, and be ready to pick up again. Missing a few sessions is not failure, unless you let it become one. It is fine to circle back through the earlier stages. You will be even more successful if you can learn from whatever put you off course originally. The important thing is not to give up, but to keep on trying.