Feature StoriesHealth & Wellness

Manage the Meaning of Exercise for Increased Success

In a previous article, we quoted Tom Frieden, M.D., former Director of the Center for Disease Control who said that “being active is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.” We also described how regular physical activity can generate new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of our brain that plays a central role in memory formation and storage.

We further noted that The National Institutes of Health found that more than half of US adults do not meet the recommended standards for physical activity and that 25% of American adults are not active at all. This is a troubling statistic and raises the question “why?”

Our own original research with 1,600 west coast adults sheds light on an important piece of the problem. In our sample, we asked respondents if they got discouraged when they fell short of achieving their activity goals. We also inquired about their tendency to ‘give up’ on efforts to develop active lifestyle habits.

In the group of people who exercised regularly, about one in five admitted to getting discouraged when they missed their activity goals. In the group of respondents who were not regularly active, almost 75% said that they got discouraged when they missed their goals.

Here we arrive the essence of this article title: ‘Manage The Meaning.’ When asked what meaning they derived from missing activity goals, the groups had sharply contrasting results. 

How someone interprets an event can have significant behavioral consequences. Imagine an aspiring activity striver whose plans for an outing get pushed off her schedule twice in one week. What meaning does she attach to that experience?

Our research reveals that people with regular activity habits regard it as inconvenience and focus on rescheduling the outing in another time slot. For our survey respondents from the inactive group, they had a definite tendency to cite the events as further proof that they just won’t be successful in building regular exercise habits. 

How individuals managed the meaning they attached to the cancellation of an outing made a huge difference in rather they were inclined to give up on their efforts to integrate exercise into their schedule. Almost 80% of the inactive respondents who got discouraged when they missed their goals admitted to a tendency to give up on their activity aspirations.

Resilient ‘managers of meaning’ are not likely to reach negative conclusions about missing goals. They know the importance of staying active and are determined to make their plan work.

A Tip to Make it Work

When you start an activity plan, define very modest goals. When starting new habits, it is extremely important to notch a few ‘wins’ initially. Defining very modest goals in your first weeks can help you accomplish that. When you do miss your weekly goals, avoid driving into the ditch. Show persistence in making exercise part of your weekly schedule. Before you know it, you can develop a regular habit and increase the length and intensity of your outing in small, modest gradations.

In the 1970’s, I attended a seminar with renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner who was famous for teaching pigeons to play ping-pong. A seminar attendee asked how he had managed the feat. Skinner replied, “Gradually, very, very gradually.”

Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.

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