Exercise, Part 6: Make It a Habit

So, I’ve convinced you that regular physical activity offers some great health benefits and you’re ready to get started. A couple weeks of intensive effort on your part, but then quitting, isn’t going to do you any good. In fact, it’s more likely to do harm (injury) than good.

The main objective at this point is to make regular physical activity a habit. Establishment of a habit requires frequent repetition over at least two or three months, regardless of the weather, whether you feel like it or not. Over time the chosen activity becomes part of your identity.

To avoid injury and burn out, begin your exercise program slowly and increase the intensity of your effort only every two or three weeks. Your body needs time to adjust to its new workload, but it will indeed adjust. Enhance your enjoyment with proper attire, equipment, and instruction, if needed. Use a portable radio or digital music system like an iPod or Zune if you tend to get bored exercising.

The “buddy system” works well for many of my patients: agree with a friend that you’ll meet regularly for walking, jogging, whatever. If you know your buddy is counting on you to show up at the park at 7 a.m., it may be just the motivation you need to get you out of bed. Others just can’t handle such regimentation and enjoy the flexibility and independence of solitary activity.

If you like to socialize, join a health club or sports team. Large cities have organized clubs that promote a wide range of physical activities. Find your niche.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. Expect some disappointment and failed experiments. Learn and grow from adversity and failure. Put a lot of thought into your choice of activity. Avoid built-in barriers. If you live in Florida you won’t have much opportunity for cross-country skiing. If joining a health club is a financial strain, walk instead. Perhaps pick different activities for cold and warm weather. Or do several types of exercise to avoid boredom.

 In summary, formation of the exercise habit requires forethought, repetition, and commitment. You must schedule time for physical activity. Make it a priority. Hundreds of my couch potato patients have done it, and I’m sure you can, too. I’ve seen 40-year-old unathletic, uncoordinated barnacles start exercising and run marathons two years later. (A marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.2 km.)

Part 7 of the series covers “medical clearance.”

Steve Parker, M.D.

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