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HEALTH & FITNESS : Change Toward Fitness: Why Is It So Hard to Be Committed?

June 22, 1989|EVAN CUMMINGS | Evan Cummings is a free-lance writer.

This is it. This time you are determined. You are going to lose those unwanted pounds. Or stop smoking. Or stop drinking. Or stick to your exercise program. Or stay on your hypoglycemic, diabetic, low-sodium or low-fat diet.

You have grown weary of the stops and starts that have perpetuated your chronic pattern of behavior. Your latest diet is a good example. You have read about lowering fat intake and increasing exercise to ensure a healthier, well-toned body. You realize that consistency is the key to success. All that is left now is simply to do it.

You shop for a new jogging outfit with all the trimmings. Your old tennis shoes just won't do--you need new shoes to match your new attitude. As you examine the assortment of styles, a salesclerk approaches. "Walking, running or aerobics?" he asks. You soon learn you must not wear the same shoe for all three.

Succumbing to this revelation, you leave the store armed with shoes, clothes, wrist and ankle weights and an irresistible gizmo called a pedometer, which will measure the speed, distance and amount of calories you burn while running. Too bad it takes an advanced degree from Caltech to program the thing. You leave the store grateful that your credit card limit has prevented you from grabbing a nifty-looking home gym, which would no doubt have ended up as a hatrack.

On the way home, you stop by the health food store, where you load up on organic fruits and veggies and splurge on vitamins. For a solid week you rise and shine at dawn and run two miles. The next week something happens--a cold, an unexpected business trip, a light morning mist. You vow to resume the exercise program once the distraction has passed. Somehow one week becomes two and then three, until your former resolve is but an embarrassing memory, causing you to feel like a failure once more. Reverting to your old habits, you punish yourself suitably.

This tongue-in-cheek scenario notwithstanding, why can one person start such a program and achieve success, while another starts and then fails, over and over again?

Norton F. Kristy, a Santa Monica-based licensed clinical psychologist, frequent Orange County lecturer and author of numerous books on human behavior, believes motivation is one-third genetic and two-thirds learned.

"By the time we are approximately 9 or 10, our core personality is formed. Some of us are more naturally motivated, more purposeful, energetic and decisive, while others of us are the opposite. Those who are naturally less motivated must work harder to stay motivated," Kristy says.

The second most important factor in motivation is latent or unexpressed anger emanating from childhood experience, Kristy says. "Whether a person has had a family life filled with support and encouragement or with stress and guilt has a strong impact on the level of latent anger he or she carries around inside."

The person with a higher level of latent anger is more likely to engage in self-destructive, self-sabotaging behavior. "Some people become depressed," Kristy says. "Others punish themselves with alcohol, chain-smoking, drugs, food or other behaviors.

"The way we see ourselves is paramount as regards motivation because if we see ourselves as unattractive, undisciplined, losers, weak or incompetent, we will be more likely to continue a behavior that reinforces a negative self-image."

Conversely, people who view themselves as worthy or as making a concerted effort to change while rewarding themselves during the process will be more likely to break a longstanding cycle of destructive behavior. This system of self-encouragement and reward cultivates motivation and brings about lasting success, Kristy says.

Research shows that health-improvement plans should be viewed as a lifelong process rather than an "event" goal. For example, a person who loses weight in anticipation of a special occasion, such as a class reunion or wedding, or who starts an exercise program to look good for another person, is far more likely to backslide and fail based on a rejection or a lack of continuing interest in the program. These aborted attempts can be compared to New Year's resolutions that soon slip away.

"People tend to give up early on because, going in, they expect to give up," Kristy says. "So rushing out to buy all the right stuff . . . is often accompanied by the deep-down knowledge that it won't last--another form of self-sabotage."

Many people arrive at a personal crossroads and make a life-style change for the sake of their health. Here are two examples:

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