by Margaret Barr, BSc(PT), MA
You know exercise is good for your arthritis, but maybe you haven’t found a way to include it in your daily routine. Or perhaps you’ve tried to make a habit of exercise but haven’t been able to keep it up. Whatever the reason for the lack of exercise in your life, you know you could get moving if you wanted to. You just haven’t. To get you started on the right track, here’s some advice to help you begin and stick with a new habit — the habit of exercise.
If you are like most people, you have your own way of doing things, probably at particular times or in a particular order. Perhaps you have coffee before you get dressed in the morning to help wake yourself up. Maybe you watch TV every evening to wind down. Habits like these can be efficient, even necessary. The problem is, they are often hard to change once they become an accepted part of your life.
But life changes all the time. What this means is that, over time, some habits don’t work as well as they did in the past. In fact, an old habit may have a negative effect on your present well-being. The trick is to recognize which habits should stay and which need to go so that they are in tune with who you are today.
The question that naturally follows is, who are you today? Being a person with arthritis is only a small part of it, of course. In all likelihood you have long-standing family roles like mother, aunt, nephew, grandmother, or son. You may also have a work role such as teacher, dentist, or salesperson. Perhaps you volunteer. You are almost certain to be a neighbor and a friend. And it’s possible you belong to other communities and interest groups as well. These roles and choices give meaning to your life; they inspire, direct, or motivate you in some way.
Coming to terms with arthritis may not change the roles or choices in your life, but it may change the way you think about them and live them. A change to your health is a loss, and a loss is something you grieve. The grieving process is different for each person and for each event. How you grieve depends to an extent on the ways of coping you’ve learned. But for most people it’s normal to follow some sort of wandering path of anger, denial, depression, and guilt until they come to a place where they face their challenges, take control, and find a new way of being.
What does all this have to do with getting into the habit of exercise? It’s helpful to “know yourself” — especially how you deal with losses and gains and changes in your life — before you take on a new challenge. It’s almost certain that for you to create a new habit, you’ll have to let something go. It could be an activity or an attitude or a small part of the person you believe you are. But to grow new flowers, you’ll have to weed out the old stems. You’ll need to examine your old habits and find where you can make a change.
Getting yourself ready to take on something new can be quite a process. Experts describe people as moving through stages of readiness. In the first stage you think “that’s not for me.” Then you progress from “maybe that’s for me” to “I’m going to do it one day” and “I’m going to try it now” until you finally hit on “it works for me.” (For more on these stages, see "Stages of Readiness.")
You can go forward or backward on the readiness path. You may realize a change is needed, gather information about it, consider the pros and cons, but still not be quite ready to act on your knowledge and good intentions. Perhaps meeting a special person will make you ready for change, or coming across old high school pictures of yourself on the basketball team. Or a sudden life-changing event, such as being diagnosed with arthritis, may spur you to action, although most often it isn’t enough to keep you on a new track over the long term. Getting started, you see, is just the beginning. To make exercise a regular habit you’ll need not only to be motivated in the short term but also to find ways to stay motivated over the weeks and months ahead until exercise becomes an essential part of your way of life.
Motivation comes from within us. Sure, we can be ordered, persuaded, or even inspired to exercise, but when it comes time to act, the ball is firmly in our own court. Go back to the stages of readiness. If you are at the “that’s not for me” stage, try to understand why you are there. What would need to happen for you to consider an alternative approach? If you’re saying to yourself “maybe that’s for me” or “I’m going to do it one day,” think about what brought you to this point and what you might do next. How will you know when the time is right to get started? What will your next steps be?
Last Reviewed on June 6, 2010
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