When I started trail running eight years ago, getting into my running clothes and hitting the trail in the morning felt more like a visit to the dentist. I was in an emotional bind every single time, always looking for an excuse to skip out.

Sound familiar? Most of us have a hard time sticking to an exercise regimen. Fortunately, new research offers some tips for following through on our good intentions.

In one recent study, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Ryan Rhodes, a psychologist and exercise expert, and colleagues followed 611 participants who intended to start an exercise regimen. The researchers found that those who felt physical exercise was critical to their health and well-being were the ones most likely to actually get started with their regimen, which makes sense.

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More interesting were the attitudes and behaviors that distinguished those who stuck to their regimen from those who soon fell off the wagon. The researchers found that participants who were most likely still to be exercising six months later were those who initially reported having a sense of "self-efficacy"—a conviction that they could overcome their resistance to exercise, such as when they felt down, tired, stiff, or when the weather was bad. Rhodes and his colleagues argue for the importance of fostering a sense of self-efficacy in people, and giving them concrete strategies for dealing with their reluctance to exercise. But how do you do that?

Another recent study zeroes in on what these concrete strategies might be. In the study, psychologist Gertraud Stadler and colleagues found evidence that the key may be what they call "implementation intentions," concrete plans for overcoming resistance to exercise.

The researchers looked at 256 women who were coached by the research team to form implementation intentions. Before embarking on their exercise regimen, half of the women were asked to list the most important obstacle they anticipated for their training—e.g., getting up too late—together with events and experiences they associated with this obstacle (e.g., working too late). Then these same women answered three questions:

  1. When and where does the obstacle occur, and what can I do to overcome or circumvent the obstacle?
  2. When and where is an opportunity to prevent the obstacle from occurring, and what can I do to prevent it from occurring?
  3. When and where is a good opportunity for me to act on my wish, and what would this action be?

The results, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, showed that participants who formulated intentions to overcome obstacles were twice as physically active—exercising nearly one hour more per week—as participants in the control group, who received information about the importance of physical exercise but did not formulate implementation intentions. This difference appeared as early as the first week after the coaching began and was maintained over the course of the four-month-long study.

These studies together suggest that adopting new habits is easiest if we create specific plans to act on our best behavioral intentions. So I've started to tackle my exercise commitment by first thinking about why exercise is critical to my health and well-being. Then I created concrete plans for working out every day—for instance, remembering to set my alarm in the evening so that I can hit the trail before work in the morning. Since establishing my new exercise habits, I've definitely noticed that my confidence in handling future setbacks increased, and I felt like I had greater power to overcome my resistance to exercise. Off to the trails!

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