The Science of Getting Yourself to Exercise (with transcript)

The Science of Getting Yourself to Exercise (with transcript)

Dr. James Rosen is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and clinical psychologist. A leader in the field of health psychology, Dr. Rosen has helped hundreds of people in his research and clinical practice to start exercising. His approach to an exercise habit is based on science, but he does not talk psychology from the armchair only. Dr. Rosen relies on lessons from his patients and personal experience as a competitive athlete. Dr. Rosen is the author of the self-help book: “How to make yourself exercise. Creating a lasting habit.”



Frank Samson:             Welcome to Boomers Today. I'm your host, Frank Samson. Of course, each week we bring you important, useful information on issues facing baby boomers, their parents and other loved ones. We have another great show today, but I just want to first thank everybody for all their support. Our listeners are growing each and every day and thank you for sharing our show with so many people. Of course, you can get to the show, you might be listening to us right on your local radio station, or certainly we're also on iTunes, iHeartRadio, and many other online stations as well. I just want to thank you. The reason we're getting so many listeners is because we have such wonderful guests. We have another wonderful guest with us today.

                                    We have with us Dr. James Rosen, who is a professor emeritus of psychology and clinical psychologist. He's a leader in the field of health psychology. Dr Rosen has helped hundreds of people in his research and clinical practice to start exercising. His approach to an exercise habit is based on science, but he does not talk psychology from the arm chair only. Dr. Rosen relies on lessons from his patients and personal experience as a competitive athlete. Dr Rosen is also the author of the self-help book, How to Make Yourself Exercise: Creating a Last Habit. Dr Rosen, thank you so much for joining us on the Aging Boomers. Do you mind if I call you James?


James Rosen:              No, that'd be great, Frank.


Frank:                           Great. Well, thanks so much for joining us Boomers Today. 


James:                          My pleasure.


Frank:                           I guess, I have to say that this particular interview is important to a lot of people, but I'll say it's important to me, because I fall right into that boomer age. Smack in the middle, and I want to consider myself somebody who has kept myself in pretty good shape throughout the years, but of late, it hasn't been so easy. Is my issue pretty common out there with boomers? Exercising being an issue or a problem or are people doing it as often as they should? Talk to me about that.


James:                          Well, absolutely, you're not alone. I mean, don't we usually think people get smarter about health behavior as they get older? It turns out, boomers are better on not smoking, better controlling alcohol, better eating healthy, using seat belts, safe sex. Boomers are better on health behavior, but there's one that actually gets worse. People over 60 are one of the least likely to get enough exercise, whereas all other health behavior improves as we get older. It's strange because, would a 60 year old wake up one day and say they're going to start smoking cigarettes? Of course not. But they're willing to give up exercise. Unfortunately, compounding the problem, married people tend to have the same exercise habits. When one spouse gives up, the other one typically does too.


Frank:                           Why do you think that is? Why do you think it's so hard for people, in this age group especially, to get themself to exercise? Why do you think that is?


James:                          Well, I would say people tend to feel guilty for not exercising, but much of the problem really isn't our own faults. The solution is up to us, but there are things outside of us that make it hard to exercise. I think of four different reasons. One is, exercise isn't really a natural behavior anymore. We have to make ourselves be physically active, because machines and automobiles do most of the work for us. Physical work has been engineered out of modern life. Second, it's abnormal to exercise. That's statistically speaking. Only 11% of 60 year old plus get enough exercise. That means that 90% of people around you don't. If you're a woman or an ethnic minority, even fewer people you know exercise enough.

                                    Instead of social pressure and good role models to exercise, there's social pressure and permission to not. In a way, people don't exercise enough because no one else is. A third issue, and maybe you can relate to this, at the beginning, exercise really feels more like a punishment than a reward. I mean, let's face it, breathing hard, sweating, other personal stressors like taking time away from family, feeling like a klutz or think you look bad exercising. There's so many ways exercise can make you feel uncomfortable, and then on top of that, if you're looking for a reward, like losing weight or getting off medication, those are long term rewards, not immediate rewards.


Frank:                           Just a comment on it. I have read studies that show that in areas where Alzheimer’s is low, the people there tend to be very naturally active. So there might be a correlation. Are you suggesting that it’s better to make exercise a daily part of your life, rather than viewing it as a chore?


James:                          Well, that's the goal. To make healthy behavior part of your lifestyle. By that, I mean, not a temporary burst of trying to act healthy, but something that you just do unconsciously, without having to argue with yourself. It's just part of your daily routine. That's really the basis for making a habit, which is the main thing I want to focus today.

                                    I did want to end this issue about self-control, which I think is the fourth problem for people in maintaining their exercise. Let's take new year's resolutions for an example. Exercise and losing weight are the top two resolutions, but 90% of people give up in a couple of months. And that's too bad, because psychologically, it takes way more time for complicated lifestyle change, like regular exercise. I think about, at least four months. Why is that? Well, it turns out, people have good intentions, but they don't really have a real plan. They don't know how to resist excuses. They skip exercise, they set unrealistic goals, they don't keep track of how much they're exercising.

                                    The sad thing is, when people give up on healthy behavior, they wait way too long to try again. Like waiting another couple of years. Any health behavior, it can take one attempt after another until finally something clicks. So it's best not to wait. 


Frank:                           Does it need to become a habit? Is habit the right word or is it just trying to get people to focus? That's what I look at. I go, if I get myself focused, I start doing it, but then I eventually do stop. So is it just could be part of our normal everyday routine, and is habit the right word?


James:                          Yeah, habit is the right word, because on any one day, most of the country is trying to lose weight or exercise more, but give up. A habit means you don't give up. Let me just say what a habit is, definitionally speaking. A habit is a recurrence, unconscious pattern of behavior, that is acquired through frequent repetition. So let's break this apart. Exercise is recurrent. That means you exercise all the time. It's routine like a part of every day, it's a regular frequent behavior. Second, exercise is unconscious. You do it automatically without having to analyze whether you should or shouldn't. No deliberate thinking is required, you just do it. And finally, I'll add my own favorite. You feel weird if you don't exercise. When your exercise fits this definition, you have a habit.


Frank:                           Got it. Well, I'll just speak for myself, I don't know if I feel weird if I don't exercise, I feel guilty that I'm not exercising.


James:                          Okay, I'll accept that. In other words, you don't feel right or feel uncomfortable not having exercise. But it takes time to get to that point. And like I say, my experiences, the magic cutoff time is about four months, rather than two weeks like what a lot of health gurus say. 


Frank:                           When you say four months, you say, before it could have a chance to become a habit, you got to give it four months?


James:                          That's what the research shows. That people are most likely to give up a new behavior within the first few weeks, the first couple of months. If you can make it past three months and get yourself to the point of maybe six months or even longer, the likelihood of giving up diminishes greatly. I know this might sound simplistic, but the key to not giving up exercise and making it part of your life, is just to accumulate more and more time of doing the same thing. Eventually, the chances are less likely you're going to give up.

I mean, we know from studies of people trying to change health behavior, and you might be surprised to know that keeping going with exercise, it's about hard as staying quit on heroin. We can look at different health behaviors like quitting smoking, quitting alcohol, losing weight, exercising, quitting drugs, even heroin, the graph is the same. People tend to relapse within three months after success, regardless of the behavior. There's something about the psychology of making complex changes in lifestyle and health behavior, that most people quit early on, but those who hang in there for more and more months are likely to have a permanent lifestyle change.


Frank:                           Perfect. Now I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk about your book: How to Make Yourself Exercise: Creating a Last Habit. James, tell us a little bit more about your book. We'll get into some other questions, but tell us a little bit more about your book and how people can get it. Why is your book different than other books about exercise, which there's a lot of them? So tell us why people should go to Amazon, wherever you'd like them to go, to go get that book?


James:                          Well, thanks. Of course, there is a lot of information out there about how to exercise, what exercise to do, how to become physically fit. But I've seen mine as the best source, focused exclusively on how to make yourself exercise. It's a motivation behind creating an exercise habit. It's, of course, important to become more physically fit, but that's just the icing on the cake. The hardest part is getting yourself out the door and making yourself do it. That's what my book focuses on. A step-by-step guide on making yourself exercise.


Frank:                           I know we talk exercise generically, but especially those people in the aging boomers, that group, if somebody asks you, "Well, what should I be doing? How much time should I be doing in cardio? How much time should I be doing in lifting weights?" What do you answer to those people with those questions?


James:                          Well, I would say if you're like most boomers, you're probably not exercising very much. Right now, maybe on one or two days a week. The first step is to build on how often your exercising. That's the basis for a habit. The best way to make a habit is to, just like the definition says, to increase the frequency of the behavior, to exercise more often. The quality of what you do, whether you're weight training or you're swimming or walking, how long you do it, that's not important at the beginning. The most important thing is to gradually increase the number of days in a week that you exercise. Let's say you're exercising like most people, a couple of days a week. That means five days a week you're not exercising. Which is the stronger behavior, exercising or not exercising? Well clearly, exercising is not the strong behavior.

                                    So you want to get past that by starting from where you are. Let's say you exercise on one day a week, add a second day. Doesn't matter what you do, even if you just get out the door for five minutes, you're accomplishing something. Then, maybe add a third day, a fourth day, and keep going until hopefully, you can get to six or seven days a week. That's best in terms of really making it part of your lifestyle. But I say a magic cutoff point is four days a week. Once you hit four days, then you're exercising more often than you're not. That helps build up the expectation, that every day is going to be an exercise day. It's not, "Am I going to exercise?" It's, "When am I going to exercise?" That comes from just making yourself do it on more days during the week.


Frank:                           In the studies that you've done, let's say somebody follows your suggestion. They start exercising, they're going for that four month period, they get themselves to the, at least four days a week, they're following your suggestions, and then things start to taper off. What's the likelihood, in your studies, that things will taper off? And then if they start to do that, what suggestions do you have to get back on track?


James:                          Well, like I say, it doesn't matter which health behavior you're looking at, smoking, alcohol, exercise, dieting, most people quit within three months after success. But if you can make it up to six months or so, the likelihood of quitting decreases. How to not give up, the best advice I have is to understand that it's not how long you continuously exercise, but how quickly you recover from a break. Don't procrastinate. A day off, a few days off, a week, it's not going to kill you, but you have to make yourself go out the door to do something. Regardless of time or quality.

                                    It's hard to get back into exercise after a longer slip, so the best advice is, when things happen, bad weather, injury, work crunch, life stress, okay. Don't beat yourself up about it. But don't delay, get back to your basics. I say the basic is, get back to increasing number of days a week you're doing something. Don't worry about quality. Get out the door, do that five minute walk. Until you start building up the expectation again, exercise is going to happen.


Frank:                           So each day, what should someone set as a goal that they're going to exercise for ... I know you said to start out, even if it's five minutes, but once you get into that routine and you're on track, should it be 20 minutes a day, an hour a day? Any suggestions there for people?


James:                          Well, there are standards for what's enough exercise, and when I say, only 11% of people 60 plus exercise enough, that means almost 90% are not doing what our health standard says, which is 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week. That's a good initial timeline. Try to hit a half an hour on almost every day of the week. But I have to be honest, which is, American health standards are kind of dumbed down. They're kind of exercise light. I think the thinking is, don't set a goal that's too high because it'll intimidate people.

                                    When you look around the world, a lot of European countries, Australia and the World Health Organization say, to really have a significant impact on health and weight, you are looking at 60 minutes a day, an hour a day, most days of the week. I can only imagine how few seniors are hitting that standard. But don't be intimidated. Get your frequency up and then start worrying about accumulating more time.


Frank:                           It's interesting, I had the privilege to hear a great speaker who was talking about aging, and a question from the audience came up and asked, "Well, what do you feel about some of these over the counter medications that could help in the aging process?” His answer was interesting. He said, "Well, if you are going to go to the pharmacy or the drug store to pick up that medication and you're going to drive there and get it or walk there and get it, I think it's okay to take if you walk there, but don't take it if you drive there." His point is, it's a waste. Just walk. That would be more beneficial than any of that over the counter stuff. I don't know what your thoughts are on that?


James:                          It reminds me of an old saying, which is, if you could put exercise in pill form, it would be the most sought after drug on the market.


Frank:                           Exactly. Well, great. Because we have maybe 30 seconds here, go ahead and tell people the name of the book again and how can they get it? All right?


James:                          The book is called, How to Make Yourself Exercise: Creating a Lasting Habit. This is a self-help workbook, so it's a step-by-step guide on gradual changes in behavior. The focus is not on getting more physically fit, that's the icing on the cake. It's focused on how to make yourself do it, be motivated, get out the door, and make changes that are going to last, not temporary.


Frank:                           Great. I'm sure you could get it on Amazon, any other sources?


James:                          Amazon would be the best outlet.


Frank:                           Okay, great. Dr. James Rosen, thank you so much for joining us on Boomers Today, I really appreciate it.


James:                          Thank you, Frank. It was a pleasure.


Frank:                           Great. I want to thank everybody out there also. Just be safe out there. We'll talk to you soon on our next show, Boomers Today.


The Science of Getting Yourself to Exercise (with transcript)