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The two-month curse: don't let January workout resolutions fade

Feb. 7, 2013

Give your workout the two-month test.

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Stay motivated with group exercise classes like this CycleFit session at IU Bloomington.

Most people who drop out of an exercise routine do so within two months, said John Raglin, a psychologist in the IU Bloomington Department of Kinesiology who conducts research on exercise and sport. So if you started an exercise program in January, it's time to buckle down and re-commit.

"Staying with it is incredibly hard for most people," Raglin said. Half of the people who begin a workout routine can be expected to quit, which is the same drop-out rate as 20 years ago despite the growth of the fitness industry, more sophisticated equipment and fitness clubs, and better-trained instructors.

Sticking to an exercise routine is a lot like quitting smoking, Raglin said. Most people want the health and aesthetic benefits and know they should do it, but knowing just isn't enough. People quit -- or don't start -- for a variety of reasons, some of which are difficult or impossible to address, such as unsafe neighborhoods or a lack of parks or recreational facilities. Many factors and behaviors, however, are under your control:

  • Companionship and responsibility. In a study of married couples and exercise adherence, Raglin and IU exercise physiologist Janet P. Wallace found that only 8 percent of the participants who exercised with their spouses quit compared to half of the participants who exercised independently of their spouses. Raglin said the social support is key. "It's more important what the people around you think," he said. "For many people, their exercise routine becomes their social network, which brings with it social obligations. If you see it's raining outside and think, 'Maybe I'll skip my walk today,' it's an entirely different matter if people are waiting for you."  
  • Stress and anxiety. Improved health and potentially a longer life are poor motivators when it comes to exercise, Raglin said, because the payoff is not immediate. The stress relief and mood boosts from exercise, however, can be felt immediately and last for hours. "The psychological consequences are significant," Raglin said. "When you exercise you don't know what your blood pressure or insulin levels are, even though they're important health benefits."  
  • Social stress and "meat markets." Many people find the emphasis on body image at some fitness or recreational facilities too much to bear, so they quit. This stress can be avoided by choosing a facility or exercise class that's more comfortable, where staff are more cognizant of these stresses and other special needs. Some facilities cater to women, for example, or offer classes geared toward specific age groups.
  • It doesn't just happen. Time is one of the "environmental barriers" that can be tweaked to make room for exercise. Raglin said lack of time is often cited as a reason people quit exercising, but studies of prison populations have found similar drop-out rates. He suggests looking at a typical week and finding the pockets of time that are consistently available. Exercise broken into five- and 10-minute increments is just as beneficial as one 30-minute stint, he said.

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