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Of all the things you could choose to spend your time on, improving your fitness probably ranks high. Investing just a few hours a week in your fitness training guarantees significant returns: increased energy and resiliency for all your other endeavors, for one thing, but also a stronger immune system, a body that burns fuel more efficiently, an upbeat outlook, a strong physique and a twinkle in your eye. An all-around better you, really!

There is just one minor hitch: Even if you’ve got a burning desire to achieve this goal, you may not be exactly sure how to tackle it. You’ve got to start somewhere – but that “where” may not be entirely evident. What you need is a step-by-step fitness plan, one that gets you off to a good start and helps you keep an even keel, even as you ride out obstacles, feelings of resistance, moments of self-sabotage and other potential hiccups.

To steer you in the right direction, we’ve tapped top experts to help you create a fitness plan or improve the one you’ve already got. Build in their recommended goal-setting techniques, anti-setback strategies, motivators and technical suggestions, and you’ll have all the tools you need to commit to exercise, not just for a few months, but for the rest of your life.

Think Before You Act

The best of exercise intentions are regularly abandoned for all sorts of reasons. Busy schedules. Overzealous ambitions. Frustration over too-slow results. But underlying all these barriers, there’s one common culprit: the lack of a well-thought-out fitness plan.

The other classic fitness underminer is a mucked-up mindset. When most of us think about our reason for exercise, the word “loss” quickly comes to mind – fat loss, weight loss, inches lost. Even if you do want to drop some pounds or inches, it’s better to begin by focusing on what you stand to gain from your fitness program, including more energy, confidence, self-esteem, strength, endurance, relaxation and a more positive attitude.

When professional coach Kate Larsen begins counseling clients who want to get fit, she asks how long they’ve harbored this goal. Their whole adult life? The past five years? “I then ask, ‘Why now?’ What’s changed about their life that they’re ready to commit to a fitness program now? I really encourage my clients to think about exercise before they begin doing it,” says Larsen, PCC, a Minneapolis-based certified lifestyle and wellness coach, certified personal trainer, and faculty and mentor coach for Wellcoaches Corporation. “Unfortunately, most people start with action – they just start doing – and action without reflection leads to failure.”

That’s because whenever we make behavioral changes, we are naturally inclined to go through a series of stages. Those stages, outlined in what’s called the Transtheoretical Model of Behavioral Change, include precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and adoption (see sidebar). Each stage depends on and grows naturally from its predecessor.

“Before you can implement a new behavior, you have to have the right attitudes and beliefs about it,” explains Werner W. K. Hoeger, EdD, FACSM, director of the human performance laboratory at Boise State University in Idaho.

Ideally, by the time you begin planning your fitness program, you’ll be solidly in the “preparation” stage. It’s OK, though, if you haven’t quite reached this stage yet, or if you’re not quite ready to leave it for the “action” phase. What’s essential is that you move at your own pace. If you enter the action phase prematurely, you may suddenly realize you need more time to prepare. No problem. Every stage has its purpose. Proceed through the following steps and strategies as they feel realistic and doable for you.

1. Create a wellness vision

What’s the status of your health today? What might your life be like five years from now if you don’t make a change? In contrast, what if you do make some positive changes and begin to exercise more regularly? How will that change your health and your outlook on life? “Get a picture in your head of how you want your life to play out and how exercise will fit into that picture,” Larsen suggests. (For more on the process of visioning, see “See It, Believe It.”)

2. Identify your goals

This one seems obvious, but it can be tricky, because your goals need to adhere to certain guidelines. “They should tie back into your wellness vision,” Larsen says. To accomplish that, she recommends completing the following statement: My vision or desire is to ___________ so that I can ___________. For instance: My desire is to increase my energy levels so that I can play with my kids without always feeling so tired.

When filling in your blanks, start with the age-old advice of making your goals SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). If you want to, say, lose 20 pounds in a month, you’ll be disappointed. That goal is specific and measurable, but far from realistic, and there’s no amount of action (save removing a limb) that’s going to let you drop that much weight so quickly.

“Generally, you can’t lose more than 1 to 2 pounds of body fat in a week,” says Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS, author of the 28-Day Body Shapeover and owner of the Personal Training Center for Women in Scarsdale, N.Y. “Trendy diets often promise more, but if you lose more than 1 to 2 pounds a week, you’re losing mainly water weight and muscle tissue.” Besides, weight lost that quickly tends to return with a vengeance. A more realistic goal for weight loss in a month (one that can be achieved through proper nutrition and moderate exercise) is 6 to 8 pounds.

Set some short-term goals of 30 days or less, as well as some long-term goals of one to three years, Schoenfeld says. A long-term goal might be attaining a specified percentage of lean muscle within a year. A short-term goal might be accumulating 30 minutes of exercise three days a week for those first 30 days. Once you start working toward your short-term goals, you’ll often perceive benefits within a week or two. “Whether it’s feeling less stressed or having more energy, you’ll notice the immediate paybacks you get from exercise, and that will boost your motivation,” says Barbara A. Brehm, EdD, professor of exercise studies at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

3. Take stock of past successes

If you’re like most wannabe exercisers, this probably isn’t the first time you’ve started an exercise plan. But rather than focusing on the negative (the fact that you fell off the treadmill, so to speak) figure out what you’ve done in the past that has worked or felt good, Brehm advises. Were you more motivated to exercise when you had other people to accompany you? Did one specific class inspire you to exercise? Did one time of day work better for you than another? What’s the most fun you ever had being active? When were you in the best shape of your life? Figure this out, work those elements and variables into your current plan as best you can, and you’ll be more likely to succeed in the long run.

4. Determine your barriers to change

What’s stopped you in the past from committing to exercise? A perceived lack of time? Work or family responsibilities? No health club near work or home? Write down these obstacles, and then create strategies to counter them. “If you can do that, you’re a mile ahead of the game and a whole lot more prepared to make a change,” Hoeger says.

For example, if you believe you’re short on time, log all of your daily activities, as well as the amount of time it takes you to do them. Then assess whether some of those activities can be cut or whether you can incorporate activity into them: Catch up with friends and colleagues while walking, exercise in front of your favorite TV show, stretch out or stand on a wobble board as you chat on the phone, do neighborhood errands on your bike.

5. Evaluate your personality

Your success will partially depend on what’s called your “locus of control,” a concept in psychology that deals with personality, namely whether you credit future successes or failures to external or internal causes. If you have an internal locus of control, you’re self-motivated and believe you have control over events in your life. “If this is your personality, you’ll have an easier time sticking with a fitness program,” Hoeger says. “If you have an external locus of control, you don’t feel as in control of life, and at some level you believe that what happens to you is largely due to circumstances beyond your influence.” In this case, he says, “you’ll benefit from getting more support for your program.” Exercising with friends, going to fitness classes or joining a service-oriented health club are all good ways to start. Then, as you witness the fitness rewards of your efforts, you’ll benefit from feeling a greater sense of ownership over your success. (See “Your Fitness Personality.”)

6. Decide what you’re willing to do

How much are you prepared to change your life in order to accommodate your commitment to exercise? Honesty is the best policy here, but you also have to give yourself permission to adjust your life where necessary. “If you don’t grant yourself that permission, you won’t change,” Larsen says. “You’ve got to be feisty, energized and determined to make the time for yourself. You have to be wise about where you put your resources. Only you can make time for you. Too often we put ourselves at the end of the to-do list, hoping there will be a little ‘extra’ time for self-care such as exercise.”

If you’re exercising for optimal health, remember that you’ll need to exercise 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Yet if you’re exercising to lose weight, you’ll probably have to do more. People in the National Weight Control Registry ( who have lost at least 30 pounds and have kept it off for more than a year report logging 60 to 90 minutes of activity every day, Hoeger says. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend all that time in the gym. Instead, factor more activity into your day: Walk to the mailbox, cut your lawn with a rotary or push mower instead of a riding mower, or take a lap around your office every hour.

7. Enlist support

Announce to your friends, family and coworkers your intentions to exercise, then find people who will support you along the way. “Having social support is one of the keys to sticking with exercise,” says Bess Marcus, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School and director of the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I. Need some ideas? Recruit a friend to ask you about your workout progress every week. Even better, find a friend who wants to commit to exercise and participate in a program together. Even if you can’t work out together, you can call each other every day to check in and offer motivation. Or create a fitness support group with neighbors or office colleagues.

8. Set up your program

When designing your program, include specific information about what activities you’ll do, how often you’ll do them and when they’ll fit into your schedule. If you’re not sure what you should be doing, get help from a personal trainer or from well-credentialed books and Web sites. (Check out the American Council on Exercise [ACE] at for ACE-certified personal trainers in your area, or ask at your club.) Talk to a personal trainer at your club, and build in time for a fitness test before you begin; a few months later, retest and compare the results.

Ideally, your fitness program will incorporate cardiovascular, strength and flexibility work. But at the beginning, the most important thing is that you make time to move your body in ways you enjoy. In determining your exercise activities and parameters, remember to factor in whether you have an internal or external locus of control (see No. 5, Evaluate Your Personality). Most important, factor in fun. “You’re not going to persevere doing something you hate,” Marcus says. “If you can’t find something you love, at least find something you don’t detest.” To make exercise more enjoyable, listen to your iPod or MP3 player as you sweat, be active in nature, sign up for a new class with a friend, train for a charity running or walking event, or exercise to an audio book.

Are you ready to take action?

Now that you’ve gone through this reflection, you’re ready to act. Yet even with a plan in place and realistic goals, you still risk relapsing into old habits, namely, making excuses not to exercise. So how do you keep yourself on track with a lifelong fitness commitment? Put these solutions to work:

1. Set up self-checks

“One of the most powerful tools for making behavioral changes is keeping a calendar or a log where you record what you’ve done,” Marcus says. She recommends keeping a daily log and reviewing it at the end of each day. “If you get to the end of the week and you haven’t met your goals, you might get frustrated and be harder on yourself than you should, but if you evaluate daily, you’ll stay on top of it.”

2. Be flexible

“A rigid approach to exercise generally won’t work,” Marcus says. To be successful, you’ve got to be somewhat flexible about your schedule, the activities you do and even the goals you’ve set. For example, if you’re determined to exercise every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6 p.m., you risk disappointment when a late meeting at work pops up or you’re called away on a family emergency. That’s why it’s best to have a second plan of action in place so that when life does get hectic, you’re able to continue without much interruption.

Let’s say a meeting runs late on a Monday night, forcing you to skip the group cycling class you’ve come to love. Rather than skipping exercise for the day, set up an alternative. Is there another class later that night? If not, is there something else you’d enjoy doing at the club, such as riding a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill? Or if you don’t feel like going to the health club at such a late hour, is there something you can do at home, say, exercising in front of a 10-minute video or taking your dog for an evening walk?

On the other hand, if you’ve had advance warning and know you’re going to miss that 6 p.m. class before the day even starts, build more activity into your day. Walk for 20 minutes at lunch, take two-minute breaks throughout the day to do jumping jacks or squats and push-ups, or wake up 15 minutes earlier and go for a quick walk.

3. Expect relapses

No matter how motivated you are right now, there’s a good chance that sometime in the future you’ll have a temporary fitness lull or setback. And that’s OK. (See “The Art of the Relapse”.) “You can’t think of your exercise commitment in all-or-nothing terms,” Brehm says. There may be times when you slip up, she notes, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up. Nor does it mean that your program is broken or that you’re a bad, undisciplined person. What it means is that it’s time to assess what caused you to slip, where your priorities may have shifted, what you’re needing now. Is the time of day you’re exercising not working for you? Have work or family responsibilities suddenly gotten in the way? Do you not like the activities you’re doing? Have you lost track of the original vision or desires that inspired you? Do you need some new source of motivation or a new challenge? Consider enlisting some help to put you back on your path, perhaps a personal trainer, a coach, a friend or a family member, Larsen advises.

4. Take time off

Once you’ve gotten into a groove – after you’ve been exercising regularly for several months, for example – give yourself a break from your routine for a day or two. Do something a little different and lower key, or just take a rest. A brief break will give your body an opportunity to recover from any minor injuries, and if you’re exercising intensely, building in a block of “off days” here and there is important to prevent overtraining, Schoenfeld says. (See “Give It a Rest”.)

If you’re serious about getting into shape, you’ll want to adopt a formal periodization program that includes a strategic ebb and flow of intensity (see “Periodization”).

Worried about losing any gains you’ve made? Don’t be. As Schoenfeld explains, it takes about 10 to 14 days of “detraining” before physical achievements start to slip away. The workout habits you’ve acquired won’t disappear overnight, either. If anything, the days off might recharge your zest for a healthy lifestyle, and when you do resume your exercise program, you’ll be even more jazzed to continue. Just don’t let your timeout endure beyond a few days; otherwise, it might be tough returning to your routine.

5. Reassess your goals

Constantly evaluate and evolve your goals, Schoenfeld suggests, to make sure they stay current with your ambitions and abilities. For instance, if you’ve just run a 5K and you enjoyed training for it, you might strive to run a half-marathon or complete another 5K in less time. On the other hand, don’t automatically assume that you have to be striving ever-upward. In some cases, the best goal may be improving your exercise enjoyment, variety or life balance. Just keep asking the questions: What does my body want now? What am I ready to try next?

6. Revamp your program

Change is good for your body and your mind. Without regular adjustments to your routine, your brain may grow bored, and your muscles may not be challenged enough to make progress. You can implement change in a variety of ways: Increase the intensity or duration of your cardio exercise, experiment with new activities and equipment, try different strength-training exercises, alter the sets and repetitions of strength exercises, or vary your workout environment.

7. Reward yourself

This might go without saying, but you’ve got to mix this business of working out with a healthy dose of pleasure and pride. So once you’ve achieved a goal, give yourself a treat – perhaps a massage or pedicure, some new workout gear or music, a few hours of an enjoyable activity you normally don’t make time for, or perhaps a weekend yoga retreat. “Just don’t reward yourself with destructive behaviors, unhealthy foods or something that goes against what you’re trying to accomplish,” Hoeger advises. This is about celebrating your success, not undermining it.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, no matter how you choose to exercise, you need to make physical activity a priority. “We live in a society that no longer provides the means for us to be physically active on a daily basis,” Hoeger says. “So you’ve got to build it into your day, and make it as routine as brushing your teeth.”

Do that, and you may find that fitness becomes such an important part of your life that you’ll do just about anything to defend its place in your life. When you become a regular exerciser, you’ll learn what others have already discovered: that exercise really does enhance your everyday experience, that it makes you feel incredibly good, and that it gives you a huge boost of energy for living a happier, more fulfilling life.

As your personal experience with fitness expands, your fitness plan will naturally evolve and mature. Perhaps next year, you’ll resolve to take up cycling outdoors or enter an athletic event. Or maybe you’ll vow to learn how to teach group-fitness classes, inspiring others the same way you were inspired. But one thing’s for sure: The more joy and adventure that you allow your personal fitness to bring into your life, the less you’ll measure success by the scale, and the more you’ll appreciate your body’s inherent brilliance. And that sounds like a plan worth following.

What Stage Are You In?

Whenever you make a behavioral change, you cross through a series of stages, collectively known as the Transtheoretical Model of Behavioral Change. Although the original model has five stages, Werner W. K. Hoeger, EdD, FACSM, professor in the department of kinesiology and director of the human performance laboratory at Boise State University in Idaho, has added a sixth. See below to evaluate where you are in the process.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation You have no desire to exercise and don’t intend to start. The only way you’ll start is if you’re forced into it.

Stage 2: Contemplation

You’re not ready to exercise yet, but you’re thinking about doing it soon.

Stage 3: Preparation 

You’re taking steps toward exercise, perhaps designing your program, choosing your exercise environment, educating yourself about fitness, getting your fitness and exercise-readiness evaluated, or seeking out a trainer. Many exercisers committing to a New Year’s fitness program spend the first part of January in this stage.

Stage 4: Action

Kudos! You are now officially exercising. Don’t panic if you find yourself relapsing into the preparation stage. With the right strategies in place, you can overcome the relapse and once again start moving forward.

Stage 5: Maintenance

You’ve been exercising regularly for more than six months. You may have some ebbs and flows in intensity and frequency, but your odds of dropping out have significantly decreased.

Stage 6: Adoption

You’ve been exercising regularly for more than five years. Congrats! You’ve obviously adopted exercise as a regular habit. The chances of you relapsing into inactivity are virtually nil, and your health risks are substantially reduced.

This article originally appeared as “Active Planning” in the January/February 2006 issue of Experience Life.

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