Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
If you read the title of this article, rolled your eyes and exclaimed, “Here we go again,” let me start by reassuring you on three points:
This is not a lecture on what you’re not doing and need to be doing. Chances are, you and your doctor, or any number of well-meaning family members or friends, started doing that way before I came along.
This is not intended to warn you about how you’re probably destined to be a couch potato all winter, especially if it gets cold wherever you are.
This is not an article about your New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all been down the resolution road. Many of us have ended up where we started all too many times.
Here’s what this is about: Motivating yourself to keep your activity level up in a way that makes sense for you. With reasonable activities. And at your own pace. So … ready for a positive approach to help you keep moving?
Here’s how to get going:
Tell the voice of self-criticism to be quiet. Feeling like you’ve hit bottom and can’t possibly be any lazier can be one way to get yourself moving. On the other hand, all that self-criticism could lead to feeling like you’re too far gone to even start (not true!). Intention is the first step toward change.
Have a vision in mind. How do you want to benefit from being more active?
Think physical benefits: More energy? Stay healthy? Manage symptoms?
Think emotional benefits: More self-confidence? Less stressed? Look better?
Be clear with yourself. Have an optimistic and realistic image of a more active you. Keep it at the front of your mind. This is what you’re working toward.
Start with deciding what’s realistic. Only on TV is staying active all about preparing for the next marathon. Take a look at your limitations as well as what’s possible. Whether it’s running, walking, moving your arms, lifting your legs, or some combination, approach upping your activity level with awareness of how your body is most likely to cooperate, as well as benefit. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment or injury. If you haven’t already done this, having a talk with your healthcare provider is strongly recommended.
Find an activity you enjoy. Do an inventory of the things you enjoy that involve some kind of movement. Little things, big things. Chores like vacuuming the living room, fun things like taking a walk or bowling. Keep in mind any limitations you might have, as well as the weather. Even pacing back and forth, or doing arm lifts with a can of tomatoes while you watch TV, will up your activity level if you're currently at zero. Keep in mind that staying active doesn’t always have to involve doing exercises. Though it might.
Or find an activity that benefits you. Even if you don’t love it. The goal here is to experience the benefits of staying active. So, while activity can be fun, it’s good for you even if it’s not so fun. A healthcare professional might have a few ideas that, while not so enjoyable, can be of benefit. And yes, staying active just might mean building in some exercise.
Consider adding toys. Something as simple as a 5-pound weight or a beach ball, or something as elaborate as a Wii. Toys can even make exercise you don’t enjoy doing a little more fun.
Buddy up. You might enlist your partner, another family member, or a friend to help you stay active. Maybe walking together, for example. It’s more fun with someone else. And this helps you to stay accountable.
Set small goals. Very small. One of the worst things you can do when you’re trying to up your activity level is to set goals you can’t possibly meet. If you expect to turn your life upside down tomorrow with a complete revamping of your schedule or if you expect to be 10 pounds lighter in a week, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. The way to get started is with small steps. For example, even scheduling some active time a few minutes a day is a small yet big step forward. You can think about increasing the time as you move forward.
Stay focused on your vision. Use it to motivate yourself every day. Modify your vision as needed.
Don’t forget to consult your physician. If you haven’t already had this discussion with your doctor, then let him/her know you’re looking to increase your activity level. Ask for any ideas, as well as any cautions your doctor might have. And definitely let your doctor know if you are contemplating any major changes. For example, don’t consider pushing yourself toward an activity level that is beyond your normal routine, or purchasing equipment like a stationary bike, without a sign-off from your doctor.
Take it one day at a time. And monitor yourself one day at a time. You might want to consider keeping a written record of your daily activity. This can be a good way to keep yourself accountable, and making that daily checkmark can also be motivating. You might also consider one of those wristbands that counts your steps for you and tells you how well you’re sleeping: a toy that is also a useful tool.
Keep motivators around the house. Reminders to get yourself moving, for example. Along with positive affirmations. You might also ask a family member to give you some positive encouragement, as long as they can do it without nagging or criticizing.
Sit down with your doctor and define what it means for you to stay active. Make a list of reasonable and realistic activities. Set small goals. Give yourself encouragement and not criticism. Ask your support network to do the same. And keep moving.