Dropping back in after dropping out
How to get back on track after a fitness setback
Hardly anyone starts a fitness program with the intent of dropping out. Many start out with high ambitions, and some even set lofty goals. Surely most people inherently know that they are being unrealistic, but it is difficult to hold back enthusiasm when you’re “in the moment”. After all, it took you this long to decide to finally get started!
However, despite the most earnest attempts, reality seems to get in the way. Common scenarios include the exerciser getting in over his or her head -- doing too much too soon and growing weary of a routine before experiencing any benefits from it. Frustration from not seeing the results expected from a program soon enough can also put people off. Others seem to be doing well, will stick with it for weeks - - or even months, then suddenly disappear from the gym floor. The list of possible reasons each person has can extend for miles, so they won’t be mentioned here.
The problem is not so much dropping out but dropping back in, for unless an individual just gives up completely and decides to ignore the fact that they need to exercise, chances are they still have designs on getting back to it eventually. The feelings of guilt and failure that accompany a setback in continuing an exercise plan can be debilitating and can delay the health benefits that are so important to live a better life.
Some concerns that are often heard from folks who are thinking of making a “comeback” may include, “How do I get back to the level of fitness I was in before I stopped?” or “How do I avoid an injury”? A non-verbally expressed reason may be that the person just feels embarrassed that they were unable to keep it up, so a surge of confidence may be needed before setting foot in the gym again. These are all valid, but of course, there are strategies that can offset these reservations. Read on, and if you’ve gotten off track, know that you are not alone, and you can “drop in” to exercise with assurance.
First of all, there is a belief that there is a set amount of time that it takes to develop a desired habit. For years the idea that 21 days is the magic number was promoted. After that time - - voilà! You have your habit locked-in! But more recent research suggests that there is no valid reason to believe this. In fact, developing a desired new habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with the average time in a study group of 96 subjects being 66 days.1 Other interesting findings noted by the researchers in this study include the good news that skipping one day of performing an activity does not hinder the habit-forming process, that some people take to habits more easily while others are more contrarian toward a regular practice, and (no surprise here) some habits are easier to form than others (i.e., eating more fruit vs. running every day). There may be some relief in knowing this. A person may feel less like they have failed in being able to “stick” to an exercise plan.
Exercising regularly is just one of those habits that can be a hard one to take to. For one thing, depending on the activity, there is often a learning curve that must be mastered before the physical benefits can kick in. Using a new piece of equipment, for instance, can be intimidating and frustrating without a natural aptitude or proper guidance in learning it. Solutions to this issue could include starting with something easy that you know you can do well, such as walking, or trying a different type of equipment that is easier to operate. Still another option would be to find a resource to help you learn how to use the machine until you feel comfortable using it by yourself (such as an instructor, trainer, video, instruction book, Smartphone application, etc.).
The other concern that many have that is difficult to overcome is the lack of a feeling of self-confidence once failure has been experienced. The expectation after that is that failure will be the norm. This is a good time to review the reasons why you would like to exercise in the first place. According to Dr. Len Kravitz, Ph.D., associate professor of Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico , the following are important to improve your self-perception:
- Social Support
- Reinforcement (from friends, family, colleagues, fitness professionals)
- Positive feedback (either from others or from keeping exercise journals/records on your own)
- Develop a strong belief that exercise will improve you, specifically, your health and your mental and physical well-being.
Keep reading health journals and books and look toward healthy role models to reinforce this in your own mind!
And set S.M.A.R.T. goals that are:
Also make a plan to exercise by scheduling it in with your daily activities and trouble-shoot ahead of time when you foresee obstacles that may come up.
If you weren’t doing this before, try it! If you did and were not successful, try again! Try a different approach, or just give yourself another chance. You never know what will take.
As for getting back the level of fitness you had before you “took a break” from exercise, know that the first part of starting an exercise program consists of motor learning, and once you’ve learned to walk on a treadmill, perform a bicep curl using a dumbbell, or perform the movements in a Zumba class, you’ve pretty much “hardwired” this skill, so it will always be there. The rest depends on how long you’ve been off. Muscle strength and cardiovascular endurances diminish significantly after about two weeks. In any case, resist the urge to start right back where you left off.
If you were running before, start out with walking and incorporate short intervals of running at a moderate level (you should be breathing a little harder, but not out of breath). Wait and see how you feel before stepping it up.
If you were lifting weights, start with an amount of weight you can lift for 8-12 repetitions at a challenge but without going to “failure” and stick to one set for each of 6-8 muscle groups. Give yourself at least two weeks until you increase the weight and number of sets.
Remember to stretch and rest between exercise days! If you are returning to a group exercise class, talk to the instructor. Let him or her know you’ve been away for a bit. Try not to be embarrassed to do so. Any good instructor will be understanding and eager to help. Ask them to help you modify your workout so you can build back up.
Everyone has setbacks in exercise. The good news is that your body will forgive you, and you will be rewarded with continuing good health as soon as you start back. It’s never too late to drop back into fitness!
European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 40, Issue 6, pages 998-1009, October 2010