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What Causes Exercise Relapse? (Part I)

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Have you ever started an exercise routine and were determined that exercise was going to be a lifelong friend, only to find yourself 6 months, or a year later, looking back at that time and wondering what happened? I teach a workshop on exercise behavior and motivation and one of the most critical components we discuss is how to avoid relapse. This is important, because we have to understand the obstacles that get in our way in order to minimize their impact.

It’s similar to driver’s education where we’re taught to turn into a skid and go with the resistance rather than overcorrect and make the situation worse. Temptations act as resistance to exercise, but if we turn into them as we do a skid, we can manage them before they sabotage our best efforts. The key is to identify situations that put us at risk and develop a contingency plan for action. Contingency plans ensure that we’re prepared even when our situation changes, and they help us prevent relapse.

What’s the difference between a lapse and a relapse?

Before we talk about relapse and how to avoid it, it's important to note the difference between a lapse and a relapse.

Lapse= a temporary glitch in your routine. You went on vacation for a week and you lapsed, deciding that the treadmill didn’t sound nearly as fun as a lounge chair by the beach. The key is that a lapse is temporary.

Relapse= a return to old habits, the life you lead before exercise. A relapse is when you fall off the wagon completely, when the week turns into a month, and before long exercise is a distant memory.

Typically a relapse happens over the course of time, due to a chain of events that’s similar to a domino effect. It looks something like the following:

Relapse Effect:

1. Exercise Obstacle= Angie goes on vacation for a week.

2. No Plan= Unfortunately, she doesn’t plan ahead or think about the effect this vacation will have on her regular exercise routine.

3. Short Lapse= Rather than hit the fitness room in the hotel, she hates treadmills; she decides that a week off is just what she needs. However, on Sunday night when Angie returns home she heads straight for the scale and doesn’t like what she sees.

4. Toxic Thoughts= Angie is so upset by her weight gain and alleged mushy muscles that all she feels is despair and disappointment. She questions her ability to “get back to where she was,” so much so that she begins to wonder if it’s worth it. Maybe she should just give up.

5. Relapse Begins= It’s week two and Angie has lost her motivation. She continues to allow toxic thoughts to pollute her mind and fails to consider that vacation weight is as temporary as the vacation itself. Her thoughts deplete her energy and by the end of week two she still hasn’t returned to her regular routine.

6. Full Relapse= Angie’s thoughts send her into a tailspin of negativity and mild depression. Her weight gain has affected her confidence and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own body. She is even less motivated to exercise and she has decided that this is just how it is; she’s not going to stick with it so why bother.

The reality is that even with the best of intentions, it’s not uncommon to start an exercise routine and slip back into old habits- finding more comfort on the couch than in an exercise class. While it may be common, however, it’s not inevitable and history doesn’t have to repeat itself. Knowledge is power and the key is to identify obstacles that get in our way so that we can deal with them effectively. All of us have situations that put us at risk: vacations, work travel, out of town guests, and holiday craziness to name a few. Research supports that potential relapses have a lesser effect if the individual anticipates them, sees them as a temporary bump in the road, and develops the proper skills for prevention (Dishman and Buckworth, 1997).

Check back next week for Part II, Preventing Relapse, and learn how to recognize situations that put you personally at risk, how to develop a contingency plan, and Six Steps for Prevention.

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