I love Prochaska and Diclemente’s Stages of Change model. Like, really love it. If I’m honest it’s all I can remember from studying Social Work. In my opinion it is mostly bang-on. My only complaint is that contemplation and preparation are slightly indistinguishable. I think the names of the stages are fairly self-explanatory (let me know if they’re not): when changing any aspect of behaviour a person goes through: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, relapse. Recognise any of those? I do.
I contemplated changing for a long time. Nearly at the top of MacLeod’s Mountain (2013) I lay down, exhausted, defeated, unable to get any further. My wife’s constant nagging of “you are nearly there!” did little to improve my mood, for in my experience, those who say “you’re nearly there” have little idea of how far that little feels! In this instance, I was actually less than a minute to the top! But the experience made me feel unhealthy.
Shamefully, I (briefly) contemplated buying one of those fast-slimming pills off the internet, because it was easier than doing hard graft. DON’T GO DOWN THAT ROUTE: the safest way to slim your waist is the tried and tested model: bit by bit by improving little by little.
I contemplated going to the gym to build sheer strength, after watching Elliot Hulse (language alert). He cuts to the chase and has (I presume) wise words about gaining muscle. He’s had a few different body types over the years. But I am still contemplating hitting the gym for weights (I have only just moved into action with regard to a strength circuit class).
I only spurred into action after getting a fitbit flex with my phone. I never would have spent money £60 on what is essentially a pedometer! But the fitbit demonstrated to me how little exercise I was doing; I was falling 8000 steps below the recommended 10,000 per day. I increased this slowly – by parking slightly further away from work and the supermarket. I discovered that what felt like a mile was only a tiny percentage of one. But even though I was doing far less than a mile, the benefit was clear: I was arriving at work awake and better able to concentrate.
Around this time, my doctor recommended exercise as a treatment for my depression. Having seen the benefits of walking on my mood, I took my doc up on this suggestion. I bought some trainers. They were great. They lay around for a year until I eventually went out for a run. I aimed for 15 minutes. Easy. I’d done that before at school. I had to cut it short at 10 minutes, crawled back up the tenement steps to our flat and collapsed on the sofa, where I lay for probably an hour.
We have to contemplate change is possible, what it looks like, and then move toward that.
I now realise I will never look like Hulse, but I do do strength work that helps my running.
As well as eventually getting into exercise, I made one very small change in my diet. Just one. Though that felt like the biggest thing to do. Over a period of months I reduced the sugar in my coffee from two teaspoons to none. What convinced me to do this was The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. By chapter 3 I was both terrified about all the bad habits I had and hopeful that if I could change one thing, I could begin to change others. I still haven’t read further, because I have no need: what I learnt has stayed with me over the last couple of years (and it’s rare I remember things after one reading). Duhigg argues that small changes are powerful, because those who successfully change one smaller habit are more likely to change other habits. Furthermore, he defines habits as including those things like the way we do the dishes, or leave the house and get into the car and out the driveway, and are actually helpful because they enable us to focus on other things. This knowledge convinced me that I needed to examine those habits to see what I needed to change. Sugar in the coffee fitted the bill as it was a start with regard to living healthily. I literally went from two sugars to one and 3/4, to one and 1/5 etc…
And I found that, on the whole, Duhigg’s theory was well-founded. In reducing and then cutting out sugar in my coffee, I was able to start saying no to biscuits and chocolate (that said, I wolfed down… a few… Neo biscuits while writing this post). I was also able to experiment with saying no to coffee, and found over time I was sleeping better and therefore less likely to need those coffees in the first place. And sleeping well helps reduce waist size.
Something I wish I had known about a few years ago was the idea of “only make changes you are willing to live with forever” (Katie at Runs for Cookies). And it’s not just us two. Men’s Health write about this theory, too. This is what I aim for. I learnt through trial and error that letting myself have chocolate and crisps each day, though reducing my daily consumption of them, reduced the need for me to binge on them. When I said “right, no more crisps” I would eventually crack and rip the crisps open in a fit of frustration. Sugar in my coffee? I can live without it. Soft drink? yeah, no need for that. Squash at dinner? yeah, I can live without that… Beer with Indian? nope, not giving that up. The trick is learning what you can go without. This will look different from other people. This is what maddens me about people commenting on what other people eat. Frankly, they know (unless they’re in the pre-contemplation stage, but even then, commenting is just rude even when you’re good friends – in which case, you should know what stage they’re in!). They know what else they have eaten that day. They know whether they need it or want it. They know whether for them they are being healthy.
Contemplate change. Realise what you need to change. Think about why you want to. Use that to spur you into action.
Work out what your habits are. Pick a small one that is relatively easy to make inroads to. It will feel scary, but take even one step toward changing it. With continued working at it, you’ll probably find you’ll have other goals.
Make changes you can live with forever.