Understanding relapses in your fitness regime
I have some clients that are consistent with their fitness and weight loss programs: They come on time, they only miss their sessions in emergencies, they keep up their food journal and they persist year-round. Of course, these clients take vacations and go to visit relatives in the holidays, but afterwards they come back to their program.
Some of my clients, however, start out with the best of intentions, but essentially they are only in it for the short term and are not disciplined. Once their contract is finished they stop coming, but, interestingly, they often come back later requesting my services again. And the cycle starts over again. What makes the second group of clients not consistent with their program? Relapses.
People relapse for many reasons. Stress is the number one reason; other reasons include injury, illness, finances and family or addiction issues. Also, among the people who do relapse, some relapse sooner than others. Psychologists have much to say about this. They call the process of learning new behaviors Stage of Change Model. The stages are divided into five phases: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.
In precontemplation, the individual isn’t particularly interested in a new set of behaviors, but he or she is aware that an activity exists. An example is a sedentary person whose friends are also sedentary and share the same negative habits; the individual is comfortable with a nonenergetic lifestyle and sees his or her lifestyle as reasonably healthy since he or she hasn’t really explored other alternatives. If someone forces such an individual into a weight loss program, the person will usually relapse since he or she does not really care. Pressuring an unwilling person into a new behavior doesn’t work.
Contemplation is the stage where the individual starts to pay attention to the benefits of a new behavior, but they are not actually ready to change their lifestyle. For instance, the sedentary person begins to notice what an active relative or friend is doing, and observes what benefits they have from exercise, such as having more energy, higher self-esteem, more endurance for physical tasks and fewer visits to the doctor. The individual may now start to fantasize about having the same benefits as their active peer, but the appeal of their sedentary habits is still stronger than his or her desire to change.
In the preparation stage people are ready to change. They are preparing to enjoy the challenge and results of a new behavior. Most of my clients were in this stage when they first came to me, but they needed someone who can explain to them how to break the barriers to self-improvement. In the preparation stage, people want to know the difficulties ahead, to avoid any unpleasant surprises on the journey to acquiring new behavior. Here people have a high index of relapse; they can return to the precontemplation stage due to injuries, boredom, inaccurate information or unrealistic goals.
In the action stage, things get more exciting but more exacting too, not only for the individual who is adopting the new behavior but also for any person who wants to see the person succeed in his or her new lifestyle. The individual is now paying attention to his or her food intake, and is exercising and looking forward to seeing progress. Assessment is sought after, not feared. Here the person wants to see results as fast as possible. Yet if their zeal and excitement cause them to try to do everything in the program at once, this may cause overexertion or stress, and increases the possibility of relapse.
The last stage is maintenance. The individual has worked to become disciplined to the new behavior acquired. People in this stage diligently work through all the steps of their weight loss program; eating right, showing up at the gym, keeping their eye on the prize. Even with this success, of course, relapses can happen. But the individual has gotten used to living with the benefits of the new behavior. Good habits are their own reinforcement to avoid relapses.
Figure out in which Stage of Change you are. Study yourself, make a plan, put it into action and try to avoid relapses. If you do relapse, however, just get back on the wagon. Give yourself as many opportunities as you need and persist in your new habits and behavior. Here are some tools that may help you stay on track, tools that are often more appropriate after you’ve gotten to the preparation stage. First, get support: get your family and friends involved in your goals. Hire a personal trainer who knows how to support you. Make new friends at the gym or in exercise classes who can cheer you along and share your triumphs. Next, create a manageable diet and exercise schedule and stick to it except in real emergencies. Avoid places and people who reinforce your old bad habits. Seek out new activities and people which are part of a healthy lifestyle.
Keep in mind that relapses are not a failure. They are merely a reminder to get back on track. As Publilius Syrus noted over 2,000 years ago, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”
Bryant, Cedric. Lifestyle Weight Management Consultant Manual. San Diego: ACE, 2007.
Canfield, Jack, et al. The Power of Focus. [city], FL: HCI, 2000.
Hoeksema, Susan. Abnormal Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011. Print.
Sandro Torres is a fitness professional at and owner of Custom Body Fitness in Carbondale. His column appears on the second Tuesday of the month in Body & More.
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