Key to Daily Exercise: When You Start to Enjoy It, Experts Say

Diana Morgan is a free-lance writer who lives in Washington.

Four years ago, Debbye Siegler was a couch potato in a size 24-plus dress. Now, an astonishing 173 pounds lighter, she can't imagine life without exercise.

Siegler started walking three times a week to pare off the last sticky pounds to her goal, but she has kept it up for very different reasons.

"I use it to get rid of stress," she says. "If I'm mad at my husband, I head straight out the door for a walk, instead of straight to the refrigerator like I used to."

Exercise has become a safety valve, something she knows she can fall back on when life seems rotten, and it has given her an unexpected sense of accomplishment and power.

First, notice this about Siegler's story: She started walking specifically to lose weight. Experts say a key to motivation--for anything--is having a clear reason for wanting to do it.

Concern about weight or health pushes a lot of people into working out. Richard Gerson, a health-fitness consultant, puts his own motivation very simply: "When I exercise, I can eat more and weigh less."

As soon as you get started in your chosen activity, it's important to draw up a list of specific goals. If you want to eventually run three miles five times a week or make it through the advanced aerobics class, write that down. Then set weekly goals easy enough to guarantee success for at least the first three months. If you don't know enough about your sport to set reasonable goals, have a trainer or friend help you, or read a book on the subject.

Even within a structured program at a gym or health club it's best to set personal goals. Fitness-class devotees, says Robert J. Vallerand, director of the Laboratory for Social Psychology at the University of Quebec, Montreal, often "develop a dependence on the leader when they're told when to exercise, how to stretch afterward."

If their life changes or they want to try something new, it's hard for them to apply what they've learned to new circumstances. Instead, "instructors should teach people to exercise on their own and make their own decisions, allowing them to become self-determined," Vallerand says.

You can always revise your goals if you misjudged the time you need to achieve them. It's important to start slowly to find out what your body can do. Resist the urge to criticize yourself. Siegler, who is now a director at Weight Watchers in the Washington area, tells class members: "You say, 'Big deal, so I had a bad week.' And you just keep going."

Just as important as knowing why you want to shape up is figuring out why you didn't start (or stick to) an exercise program in the past.

It's too hard. Lots of people think exercise has to leave you sweat-drenched and quivering to do any good. That's not surprising: For years, exercise experts focused almost exclusively on "aerobic fitness"--the level of heart and lung efficiency achieved by working out at least three times a week for 20 minutes or more at 60% of the heart's maximum rate.

That amount of exercise will get your heart and lungs in good enough shape to lower your risk of heart attack. Yet studies show only an elite 10 to 20% of Americans have reached that fitness pinnacle.

Today, researchers have turned their attention toward moderate exercisers--the 20 to 40% of us who, for example, walk regularly. They've discovered that this level of activity can make heart, lungs and muscles healthier, reduce tension, lower weight, possibly lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and ward off osteoporosis.

Another stumbling block for would-be fitness buffs is intimidation: their images of gleaming weights, slinky leotards, locker-room body checks. While some health clubs are jammed with trim, agile men and women, a local Y or community center might offer more low-key classes. Even at that spiffy club, the beginner aerobics class might be full of sweats and T-shirts--not reveal-all leotards.

There are logistical logjams. Sometimes, the practical problems can foil good intentions. The gym's too far away. There's no one to take care of the kids. You need realistic solutions: a closer club, a class that meets evenings or weekends.

It's too scary. Many people unaccustomed to exercise are afraid of it. Neophytes often appreciate the structure of classes or a personal trainer to get them over the initial hurdle.

I'm too uncoordinated. Did you try a sport but hate feeling like a klutz? The first sign that you are learning a new skill is probably making mistakes: count them as signs of progress. A carefully structured program with goals to pursue and rules to follow will give the greenest newcomer a sense of purpose and achievement right from the start.

"Running may seem easier, but tennis may be more fun," says Rod Dishman at the Behavioral Fitness Laboratory at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Every year, millions of people begin to exercise, and half of them drop out within six months to a year. They might start with clear reasons, set strong goals and appreciate the small rewards, but physical or social costs do them in.

Ironically--since it is often what gets people started--weight is a top reason for stopping exercise, according to Robert Weinberg, a sports psychologist at the University of North Texas.

"The overweight woman feels physically bad because of stresses on her body," he says. "She's also embarrassed by how she looks in workout clothes."

Also less likely to stick it out are people with low self-confidence, those whose friends don't support their efforts and those who travel constantly or have irregular hours.

Flip this downer list around, and it's a prescription for continued exercise success. If, for example, six months have gone by and you're still not a sylph, Siegler suggests visualizing just how far you've come: "I tell my classes to remember how their pants pinched at the waist when they first came to class." Try to find sources of support and reinforcement.

Role models can help--a friend with a wicked tennis serve, a sister who runs three miles a day. Those who never know when they will have a chance to work out find creative solutions that work for them: tucking a jump rope into a suitcase, booking hotels with gyms or pools.

Ultimately, the secret of success for lifelong exercisers seems to be this: They come to enjoy workouts.

"People need to learn that the sensation of feeling their bodies move is its own reward," says Gerson. What exercise experts call "external" or "extrinsic" rewards--someone's approval, a slim body, even a healthier heart--eventually lose their motivational power.

In a study of college athletes and sports, Vallerand and his colleagues uncovered three kinds of intrinsic motivation. The students questioned said they enjoyed their activity most when they were learning something new--a basketball move, a tennis serve--and when they mastered a skill.

Finally, and probably most important: they enjoyed losing themselves in the sport. "It's like listening to beautiful music," says Vallerand. "You forget everything else. The exerciser becomes one with the activity."

When you're starting out, there's nothing wrong with treating yourself to a new dress or a leisurely bath for exercising regularly, before the intrinsic rewards have kicked in. In the long run, though, you have to find an activity that you can simply enjoy.

It won't happen overnight. Gradually, says Vallerand, "a shift will take place and you'll feel exercise has become a natural, desired part of your life." It happened for Debbye Siegler. And it can happen for you.

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