The dropout rate for new exercisers is at least 50% within the first six months. Don’t let your fitness plan fall by the wayside. Here are some tips.
By Lisa Ziegel:
With all of the demands on our time and several tasks to complete all at once, is it any wonder that we are stressed out and unable to focus? How much harder does that make reaching a goal, such as maintaining a physical activity program? Apparently that makes it really hard because the dropout rate for new exercisers remains high — at least 50% within the first six months, according to a study conducted in 2009.
There are a myriad of reasons why people drop out after exercising, but a major known factor is feeling inadequate or unable to succeed at a specific mode of exercise. People feel uncomfortable performing activities they do not feel they are good at. In some environments, such as a gym setting, some worry that they are not performing as well as others around them. Another reason that has been identified in studies is the lack of progress or results, sometimes fostered by unrealistic expectations. No matter what the case, focusing on external values in establishing a long-term exercise habit is often detrimental to achieving success.
Several behavioral interventions can help with these issues, but one that shows a lot of promise is emerging after being used with success on people with psychological conditions requiring extended therapy. Meditation has been around since early times, but its use is applicable to many modern situations, one of them being stress-reduction. A program called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” by Jon Kabat-Zinn was found to be successful in clinical trials. It was thought to not only help participants improve their mental state, but helped them improve their physical health and overall well-being.
But how can this be applied to exercise adherence? Mindfulness in movement starts with easy steps toward focusing inward. This can be done individually working one-on-one with a fitness professional or a therapist, in a group class, or using audio and/or video. An individual might start with simple breathing techniques, such as just focusing on breathing in and out. Walking in a limited space where there is no end destination (such as on an outdoor track) while being aware of how the body moves may be the next phase. During this time the focus should move away from counting trips around the track or timing the walks or pacing at any speed. As many details about the surroundings (i.e., the texture of the surface of the track, the feeling of wind or sun) as possible can be noted. Feelings and sensations in the body are important to note – breathing, feeling the arms moving back and forth, and the heart as it beats. In other words, staying “in the now” of the movement without an external goal is the goal.
As in meditation, it is very difficult to block out external thoughts. It is easy to find yourself thinking about what you have to do later that evening or problems and issues in your life, etc. Finding ways to pull you back into the “moment,” such as acknowledging distractions and then moving on by letting them go, is a helpful way to get re-centered. Remaining focused on breathing and the sensations you are feeling in your body can also help.
Once a person becomes comfortable with practicing mindful walking, this technique can be transferred to other exercise modalities. For example, riding a stationary bike, focus again on breathing and how your legs feel when they are pedaling. Start without a goal, such as pedaling speed or time duration. See if you can increase these only when you feel you are ready.
Certain “Mind/Body” exercise classes are excellent at reinforcing mindfulness skills, most notably yoga or Pilates. Breathing and meditation can be practiced anywhere – even during the workday. All it takes is taking a quick break from the computer or the work you are doing to take some deep breaths, do some shoulder rolls and focus on the moment while doing these. The idea is to be non-judgmental about you but at the same time doing something that benefits your health and well-being. Taking small steps can empower you to move forward and encourage you to engage in physical activity for a life-long habit.
Take these steps:
- Starting slowly with simple breathing awareness
- Starting movement without an end goal in mind
- Focusing on feeling physical sensations and noting physical surroundings as you practice
- Gently bringing yourself back to focus when your mind wanders
- Mastering and feeling comfortable with the basics and then transferring this feeling to new activities can keep your mind and body – two parts of your being that depend on each other to help you succeed – working together to improve your health.