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Motivation Makeover: 5 Steps to Make a Healthy Habit

Aside from New Year's Day, a decision to get in shape doesn't usually happen overnight. Plus, once you get started with a new workout plan, your motivation can wax and wane from week to week. According to researchers at Penn State, these fluctuations may be your downfall.

Researchers examined college students’ intentions to work out as well as their actual activity levels and came to two primary conclusions: First, the motivation to exercise fluctuates weekly. And second, these fluctuations are directly linked to behavior—those with the strongest intentions to exercise displayed the best chance of actually following through, while those with the greatest variations in motivation had the hardest time sticking with exercise.

"There's a notion that when you want to start a new fitness regimen it's all or nothing, but change is a series of different stages with different ways to get you to each next stage," says Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, psychologist, and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. These students may have been trying to skip over one or more of the five steps or "stages" required to make a permanent change.

It's all about motivation, Lombardo says. "Are you more motivated to make positive changes or are you more motivated to stay on the couch and eat chips?"

Before You Begin

Write out the benefits of exercise before you start, Lombardo says. "List the physical, social, productivity, and spirituality improvements you'll experience—all these areas benefit from a regular workout routine." For example, socially you feel better, you're a better friend, you're more productive, you're nurturing yourself, etc. Read it and "feel" it every day at least once or twice a day out loud and experience the emotion behind your statements, Lombardo says.

Starting a new routine or healthy habit requires following through with the following five stages. (The original model of change was developed in the late 1970's by alcoholism counselors to help professionals understand their clients' addiction problems). Each stage contains obstacles you're likely to encounter.

Ready to make a lifelong change? Experts share their best tips to get through each stage so you can come out a winner.

On Your Mark (Pre-Contemplative)

In this initial stage you're not even thinking of changing your behavior.

Motivation masher: A big obstacle in the pre-contemplation stage is awareness or the recognition that a problem even exists, says John Gunstad, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Kent State University, Ohio. "We can all identify a problem when a crises occurs (e.g. a doctor diagnoses a medical problem, favorite piece of clothing no longer fits), but being proactive to identify small and negative behaviors can be challenging." You think to yourself that you've done this before and could never stick with it in the past so why bother now?

Motivation makeover: Two easy things can help jumpstart your healthy behavior change, Gunstad says. "First, start a conversation. Talk to your friends and family about health, exercise, dieting, etc. In addition to being great support systems, they might provide just the information you need to get you on the right path." Plus, let yourself daydream, Lombardo adds. "Imagine what your life would be like if you were fitter, thinner, and healthier."

Get Ready (Contemplation)

You're starting to consider you may have a problem that you need to address, but you're still on the fence about taking the first step.

Motivation masher: You're starting to think about how losing weight and getting fit may help you look better in a bikini, but you have too many "buts," Lombardo says. You keep thinking of excuses as to why you can't get started, as in "I want to but I don't have time."

Motivation makeover: You need to look at your reasons for changing and consider the negatives as well as the positives that may occur, Lombardo says. For example, if you start working out or add on to your current workout, how will you fit in that extra time? If that's the case, figure out ways to maximize your time so you squash your excuses. "To move from thinking about changing your ways to actually doing it can be hard," Gunstad says. "Many people find that identifying the right motivating factor can jumpstart their progress." For some people, it is looking good for an upcoming family reunion. For others, it can be reducing (or even being able to stop) some medications. Figure out what really gets you fired up and you are on your way to the next stage.

Get Set (Preparation)

You're in the planning stages. You're not completely decided but you're heading in the direction of change.

Motivation masher: You're making plans but obstacles keep popping up, Lombardo says. If you're going to start working with a trainer, maybe making the time becomes an obstacle. Or you can't find the right gym. You're not clear on the details.

Motivation makeover: Write it out, Lombardo says. "Writing out your intentions helps more than talking about it." Outline the specific steps you need to take and what you can do to make each step easier. Break it into smaller parts. "Instead of targeting a 50-lb weight loss, plan actionable steps you can control along the way," Lombardo says. "Each time you work out should be considered a 'win' along the way."

Preparation is all about keeping it simple, Gunstad says. "Too often people will want to change too many behaviors at once or try to change their behavior without a clear and focused plan. Instead, develop a clear and simple goal that is easy to track." For example, rather than writing out a vague goal of I will exercise more, establish a goal of I will exercise three times a week. Having a clear goal will get you started on the right foot and allow you to tweak the plan later on.

Go! (Action)

You've taken steps to get yourself moving, but you're still a beginner.

Motivation masher: If you have an all or nothing attitude, you're most likely to fall off here, Lombardo says. "If you've been working out for only a couple of weeks and you're looking for changes in your body, you can be discouraged you're not getting results quicker."

Motivation makeover: Recognize that you need to expect lapses where you don't have time to work out. Be proud of what you're doing and look at how far you've come, Lombardo says. "Reward yourself with non-food treats that motivate you." Good examples: See a movie, buy yourself new music, get a massage, go out for a healthy meal, meet up with an old friend, take a bubble bath, or just spend three hours on a Saturday hanging out and relaxing.

The action stage involves starting your new behavior and is the most difficult for many people, Gunstad says. "Keep in mind that changing a behavior is hard work, and eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and managing stress will allow you to focus your energy on following your plan."

You Got This! (Maintenance)

Maintenance means you're following through with your plan but there's still the possibility of relapsing.

Motivation masher: It's common for people to exercise for a bit and then stop and consider themselves failures, Lombardo says. You may say, I was so stressed out I missed my workout, so why bother to keep going since it's only going to happen again…

Motivation makeover: Instead of calling yourself a failure, consider it "data collecting," which simply means you need to realize what happened and take steps to prevent it from happening again, Lombardo says. For example, look at what caused you to skip your exercise or eat that donut and figure out what you can do about it next time the same situation arises.

Tips to Stay on Track

Changing behavior is hard and no one can just snap their fingers and follow an exercise plan or healthy eating habits perfectly for the rest of their life, Gunstad says. "You're going to encounter some bumps on the road to your healthy new self."

Two approaches can help you be more successful. First, remember that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t mean following the plan 100 percent of the time. "You are going to slip into old habits—just don’t let the slip become a slide." Tell yourself that it is okay to not be perfect and simply go back to the plan.

Then, learn from the slip. ("Strangely enough, we can’t improve without them," Gunstad says) Think about the factors that caused you to get off course. Was it stress? Poor time management? By identifying your triggers, you can develop a plan to work around them and get back on track. Then, tweak your plans and you’re on your way to a healthy new you.