True Change Doesn't Happen All at Once

In 1965, when Bob Dylan was the god of American folk music, he strode onto the Newport Folk Festival's stage--and was met by a chorus of boos. The reason? He played an electric, not acoustic, guitar and was accompanied by other plugged-in musicians. His audience, unprepared for such a change, felt that he had betrayed his pure folk roots.

I remembered this incident last week after reading an article about Oprah Winfrey's new creative direction. With her "Change Your Life" television, she's trying to use her immense influence, as well as the innate power of the medium, to improve the lives of her viewers (or so it seemed to me). Psychological workshops, positive role modeling, lessons given by specialists--she wants to give us whatever she thinks might help support the human spirit.

And for that she's taking a lot of knocks from doubters and naysayers who are more comfortable with the status quo than with change. "Give us back the old Oprah!" they demand.

That reaction was to be expected, as I'm sure Winfrey understood when she embarked on her make-over. For thousands of years, boos and naysaying (or much, much worse) have been the result of someone shaking up the status quo. What we learn from studying history is that, well, most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the arena of change.

Even if we're being dragged toward health.

In some sense, my career is based on cajoling, begging, beseeching or imploring people to adopt a healthier, more fit lifestyle. But what I've learned over two decades is that no one ever actually does it until he or she is good and ready. (Alcoholics and drug addicts have to hit bottom before they're willing to join a program and change, though intellectually they may have known all along that their behavior was destructive.)

The truth is that people don't change because Kathy Smith--or even Oprah Winfrey--wants them to. They change, finally, because they themselves want to.

But once the process begins, watch out. I've had to laugh a few times when friends who had always ignored or rejected my--shall we say--enthusiasm suddenly discover fitness with a passion that borders on the religious, chattering excitedly to me about their newfound love as if I were the one who had never stepped into a gym. They have the same zeal as reformed smokers.

From what I've observed, change, as it relates to fitness and health, is made up of three basic stages. The first: contemplation.

The contemplative stage occurs after a period of time, maybe even years, during which you've been watching and listening, perhaps subconsciously, to messages about fitness--but to no apparent effect. Then, suddenly, when the time is (mysteriously) right, the messages start clicking. For example, a woman's story about how she easily lost 40 pounds seems interesting and relevant. Still, however, no action is taken until . . .

Stage 2: action.

Why this stage begins is also a mystery. But when it does, you attack your new regime with devotion and abandon. I've seen new exercisers who could barely wait till the gym opened at 6 a.m., and who push away the extra calories off their plate as though the mashed potatoes were made of plaster.

Which brings us to the third stage: maintenance.

Maintenance means, simply, that the program which once seemed so alien is now an integral part of your life. The idea of going back to the old way--not exercising while eating poorly--is as unthinkable as taking a horse and buggy for your 30-mile commute. In other words, you've established a new status quo.

It's worth noting that the boos at the Newport Folk Festival didn't dissuade Dylan from following his creative muse. That he essentially invented folk rock and continued to make music history is what we remember now. Similarly, I have confidence that Winfrey's "Change Your Life" TV will, in time, remake the television talk show landscape the way her original show did.

I also have confidence in our power to change behaviors, from those that are harmful to those that are healthful. And while I would love it if everyone adopted health today, I understand that each of us moves at different speeds, and that change is always on the horizon. After all, nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.


Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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