The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between

Large vs. Small Changes, pt. 1

This past Memorial Day weekend highlighted the 11 year anniversary of my biggest one day change in the history of my life.  It was Friday, May 28th 1999 and it was prom weekend.  I hadn’t planned on going to the prom, but definitely going down to the Jersey Shore and celebrating the weekend away.  I reluctantly went to the prom, which as it turned out was fun, but way over priced.  Up to this point, I was a virgin, had never been drunk in my life and within a month would be taking my first college classes.  I also had an 11 o’clock curfew, which killed most of my social activities.  I would be going home when my friends would just be going out and that was going to be erased when I turned 18 within the next 10 days.  The weekend’s festivities were going to take place over 150 miles away from where I lived and this was before the cell phones were the norm.  In other words, for the first weekend in my life I was going to have complete freedom.  No parents to worry about, no younger siblings to try and be a good role model for – just me, my friends, nice weather, women and alcohol.

What a weekend it was.  In one weekend, I went from a quiet, shy guy to a loud, obnoxious and for the most part fearless boy who could handle more alcohol than he should have ever tried having.  Needless to say, my life was never the same after that.  Within a couple of weeks, I had no curfew, lost my virginity, went away to college and threw away the shell of a shy and quiet boy.  My life did a complete 180 and I absolutely loved it.  The allure of that quick change, of that turning point moment, where everything changes and life is never the same has kept me drunk on rapid change far longer than any alcohol could have.  In one weekend, my life turned completely around and for the longest time afterwards, I was looking for that moment in which the other changes would occur as easily and rapidly as that weekend.  It never came.

You see, it’s always easy to go from a disciplined life, to an undisciplined and carefree life, especially when you’re 18.  It’s a very different story to go from a haphazard, undisciplined life to one where you have to be disciplined and conscious of the choices you are making and the circumstances surrounding those decisions.  It took me a long time to figure that out and it took me a long time to figure out that change, dramatic change usually doesn’t happen overnight.

For the past year, I’ve been trying to figure out what is the best way to keep adherence to exercise.  Is it in small incremental, kaizen-like changes or is it large, “innovative” changes that people adhere to more?  Should you make one large change or many small changes?  Or should you make a lot of large changes or one small change at a time?

What I’ve discovered is that the answer’s not always so clear.  In his book, Changing for Good, James Prochaska details the Trans-theoretical model of change.  If you’ve done any research on change, you’ve probably heard of the 6 stages of change from pre-contemplation and contemplation up to maintenance and recycle.  Within each “stage” lies certain factors that are more compelling to the individuals in that stage.  So for some people, especially those in contemplation and preparation stages, a small, kaizen-like change, that doesn’t set off too many anxiety alarms will probably work well, whereas someone that is in maintenance and confident of their abilities can possibly get away with a large, innovative change, especially if they’ve laid a solid foundation under them.

In his program, One Small Step, Dr. Robert Mauer discusses large vs. small changes and various studies highlighting people who decide to make large changes in one fell swoop versus those that undergo small changes typically have a much higher attrition rate in adhering to those changes over the long-term.  He also advises to start as small as you possibly have to in making a change, so that you don’t feel that “alarm of worry” (although I’m pretty sure he didn’t use those words), which builds anxiety and becomes work for you.  If you can get it “under the radar” so to speak, without setting off the fight or flight or the sympathetic nervous system, then that habit has a way of persisting in your life.  After a month, increase the method a little bit and continue to make those gradual, small and under the radar changes.

With that knowledge in mind, I decided to create a program at work, which would introduce this concept to fitness, with members getting programs that required 20 minutes a day to start, 10 minutes with strength, 10 with cardio.  Every two weeks, they would increase their time 2 minutes each, until they were at 60 minutes a day and was given a year time frame to hit that mark.  Needless to say, it failed miserably.


I have a couple of theories as to why.  One, I didn’t hold them accountable enough.  Despite the basic premise, I didn’t have them report back into me, what they were doing and why and hence there was little organized follow-up and hence accountability.  Two, the beginning procedures were too “complicated” and made something simple, more complex in their heads.  Anything more complex leads to less adherence.  And third, it didn’t inspire hope.  10 minutes a day and adding 2 minutes every workout, inspires nothing but, “I’ll NEVER get the body I want, at this rate.”

A couple months after this program started, I read an article about research that went against the current beliefs that changing one habit at a time was more effective than changing a couple of inter-related habits at a time (diet and exercise).  So I decided, since I had been somewhat slacking with my own workouts, that I was going to create this “super program” with a new diet, regimented intake of certain supplements, and workouts for a 5 day per week program.  Mind you, I haven’t worked out 5 days a week with heavy strength training* in over 5 years and my diet has been so radically altered over the years, that becoming even more rigid with it, did not seem fun at all.  But that’s what I decided to do.  And despite amazing exercise programming, sound nutritional knowledge, too much damn money spent on supplements, along with multiple attempts, I got no where.  Again, the question, Why? 

Most likely it’s because didn’t have a strong enough desire to begin with.  I already have solid nutritional habits, am in pretty good shape and don’t have a huge desire to take my body to the next level…aka, I’m in the contemplative stage.   Maybe if I had a stronger desire or was fully prepared to raise my standards, these changes would be easier and I would’ve have succeeded.   But the bottom line is that with both the Small and Large changes I had been looking for in either the program or within myself had failed.

I had come up with pretty good reasons as to why they both had failed, but that still didn’t leave me with a good answer to my question, which is better?

The final answer I came up with is a little more complicated than I had originally thought, but still fairly simple to incorporate into a successful adherence to exercise. 

Monday I will explain that conclusion in part 2 of Large vs. Small Changes.

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