Forrest Gump discovered his passion for running on the spur of the moment, when a bunch of Alabama bullies were chasing him and his leg braces broke off. But for most of us, developing a commitment to running, cycling or some other form of exercise requires dedication, planning and intention.
If you find yourself in need of these essential ingredients, I have a suggestion: Sign up for a bike-a-thon. Or register for a fitness competition. Or, ahem, make a public declaration that you intend to complete a 10-K race in under 40 minutes.
I have taken the latter approach.
Regular readers of this column know that I’ll be going for a new personal best next month so that I can cross this goal off my exercise “bucket list” (or possibly blow out a ventricle from the effort). By declaring my intent to push my 42-year-old, stubby-legged body to the limit, I revealed a positive attitude about my prospects for accomplishing this objective. And by making my declaration so publicly, I created a much-needed support structure.
You support me, don’t you?
I hope so, because I need all the help I can get. That’s why I’m trying to make the Theory of Planned Behavior work for me.
The Theory of Planned Behavior — also known as TPB — is an influential psychological model that makes the fairly obvious point that most human behavior is goal-oriented. It was developed in 1985 by University of Massachusetts psychologist Icek Ajzen, who explained that intention is generated by two things: your attitude toward the particular behavior, and the subjective norm.
I didn’t know what “subjective norm” meant the first time I read it either. Don’t worry, we’ll get to it shortly.
But let’s start with attitude. Is it positive or negative? If you start with a good attitude about exercise, you’ll be more likely to achieve your goal of becoming a workout warrior. That part is not rocket science.
In addition, if you think other people — like your family and friends (and in my case, readers) — are supportive of your exercise goal, it’ll boost the odds that you’ll adopt this new behavior. That’s the subjective norm part.
Finally, you have to consider something that psychologists call perceived behavioral control. This refers to how much control you believe you have over your life. Do you think you have the time management, planning and motivational skills to achieve your fitness goal? If so, you’re on your way.
Registering for something like a fundraising ride, a race or a fitness competition can be a powerful tool for motivating a person to get off the couch and push his or her fitness to a higher level. Just consider the loafer who signs up to run a marathon six months from now. In those few minutes it took to register, she made a powerful statement about what she intends to do over the next half year.
Such an act fits well within TPB’s model: When you pay the registration fee, it conveys a positive attitude about the event. Subjective norm is generally high, as your fellow racers share the group spirit that helps urge you toward the finish line. Even more important is what those close to you think. If your friends and family aren’t jerks, they’re probably going to encourage you as well. Finally, the mere act of registering for a race usually means you think you can actually do it, which translates into having a high degree of perceived behavioral control.
What all this boils down to is that a simple act like registering for a race can turn a person into a runner. But it doesn’t have to be running, and it doesn’t have to be a race.
For Heather Yourex, a health reporter for Global TV Calgary, it was a fitness competition — the kind for which you have to stand on a stage in a bikini.
At 5 feet 9 and 175 pounds, she’d become frustrated with trying to lose the last 10 pounds needed to reach her goal. So she gave up dieting and exercise — and her weight climbed to 205.
After a friend convinced her to enter the fitness competition, she made it to 165 but didn’t feel lean enough to compete and opted out. That year.
“It bugged me that I hadn’t followed through,” she told me. The next year she put all her focus into it and on the day of the competition, Yourex was a lean and muscular 155 pounds. She was ecstatic. “I couldn’t believe it was me,” she said. “I felt amazing.”
And she looked amazing. I’ve seen the photos.
If you’d rather try something that doesn’t require tanning, depilation and skimpy outfits, consider a fundraiser like the AIDS LifeCycle — a seven-day, 545-mile ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s too late for this year (the ride begins June 5), but imagine the shape you’d be in if you registered for 2012 and started training.
Actually, don’t imagine. Take it from Wes Daniel, a property manager from Whittier.
Daniel lost his partner to HIV/AIDS and cancer in 2004, and Daniel’s doctor told him he was dying too —from obesity. “At 40 years old and 275 pounds, I was on a path to an early death,” Daniel told me. “My doctor kept telling me to change my lifestyle, and I had tried different exercises and diet plans, but nothing stuck.”
Then Daniel found his exercise passion. “I had heard so many good things about the AIDS LifeCycle experience,” he said. “I started training and lost 65 pounds.” A healthier diet certainly played a role, but the ride was the impetus to change.
Daniel is about to do the ride for the second time, and this time he’s a training ride leader, providing peer counseling to first-timers. He’s still at his much lower weight.
So if your exercise motivation is lagging, you can change everything in just the few minutes it takes to pay an event registration fee. Get Googling to find something that appeals.
And have your credit card handy.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.