Are you ready to make the change? Psychological theory of change and its application to exercise

Are you ready to make the change? Psychological theory of change and its application to exercise

Change is difficult, as anyone who has ever made and broken a New Year's resolution can tell you. If you want to make a lasting change to your life, such as taking up and maintaining a regular exercise regime, you need patience, commitment and perseverance.

It helps that the process of behaviour change has been much studied by psychologists and we now have a pretty good understanding of how and why people manage to make lasting changes to their lives. Interesting as this understanding is in itself, it's more than just a clever theory. It's been used to develop techniques to help people make the changes they want to make in their lives. If you're motivated, you too can use this understanding and apply it to your own life.

What is the Transtheoretical Model of Change?

The Transtheoretical Model of Change (TMC) is an integrative model of behaviour change that was developed by Prochaska and colleagues in the 1980's and 90's. It has stood the test of time and continues to  inform interventions to promote health behaviour change, such as smoking cessation, adherence to medication, weight management, and exercise. It's a way of trying to explain how and why people are able to make changes to their behaviour, and how it is possible to help them in this process.

In this model, change is understood as a dynamic progress through five different stages:

1) Pre-contemplation

An individual is not yet thinking about change; there is no intention to alter behaviour and no readiness to change. The individual may not be aware of any need for change at all.

2) Contemplation

An individual has started to think about change and is aware that it needs to happen. He or she is thinking about change and is intending to do something in the next 6 months, but hasn't made any definite plans yet; it's a getting-ready stage.

3) Preparation

The individual is starting to make some preparations for change and is intending to begin the process of change within the next month. He or she is taking small, concrete steps towards making changes.

4) Action

At this point, the individual has actually taken some action over the last 6 months to change his or her behaviour. Change is happening, but it's all relatively new.

5) Maintenance

Beyond 6 months, individuals need to work at maintaining the changes they have made in their lives if they are not to fall into a relapse and start the process of change again from the beginning. Maintenance is about consolidating and building on the changes that have already happened.


How can the Transtheoretical Model of Change help me with my exercise regime?

First of all, you need to identify which of the five stages you're at. Be honest – you have no-one to eceive except for yourself! Once you have a sense of where you're at, look at the techniques proposed for that particular stage and see if you can make any use of them.

Understanding where you're at

Look again at the five stages outlined above. Which one rings true for where you're at with your health and fitness regime?

·         If you're not even thinking about getting fit, you're probably at the pre-contemplation stage. Do you know enough about the importance of health and fitness, or are you a bit ignorant about it all? Is it possible that you're familiar with the information but are in denial about its applicability to your own life? Are you not really concerned about issues relating to your fitness, although others around you might be? Or do you simply feel resigned to your current state, believing you have no control over your fitness?

·         If you're aware that your fitness is an important issue that needs some attention but haven't got round to making any plans to change yet, you could be at the contemplation stage. This stage is characterised by an awareness that you should be doing something, without any concrete plans to act on this awareness. You might be feeling ambivalent about making any changes and you may be experiencing conflicted emotions about the need for change. You're becoming more aware of the pros of changing, but also of the cons.

·         Perhaps you've started to make some plans and are at the preparation stage. You may still be brainstorming the different options open to you, or you may already have made some small changes. You're ready but you haven' quite dived in yet.

·         If you've already taken some direct actions to achieve your goal, you're at the action stage. You've made some concrete changes to your life already. You're taking active steps to achieve your goals, although it might still all feel a bit new.

·         If you put your plans into action some time ago and the changes are becoming a routine part of your life, you're at the maintenance stage. The changes you've planned and carried out are becoming a part of your regular life now.

Techniques for moving on

Interventions have been developed to help people move from one stage of the model to the next. Try the following:

If you're at the pre-contemplation stage, you need to become more informed. Do some research into the benefits of exercise and the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle. Spend some time thinking about your attitude to exercise. Have you tried to make changes to your fitness regime before, and if so, what did you learn from that? A bit of self-analysis and introspection can go a long way at this stage!

If you're at the contemplation stage, you need to become surer of your commitment to change. Make a detailed list of the pros and cons of changing. Why, exactly, do you want to change? Are there any barriers to change? If so, what are they and how can you address them? You need to believe in your ability to make changes if you're going to move on.

If you're making preparations to act, it can be helpful to experiment with small changes initially. Write down some concrete, achievable goals and prepare a plan of action. Support this plan with some motivational statements that help you to focus on what you're hoping to achieve. Finding out as much information as possible about the changes you want to make is also helpful.

If you're already putting your plans into action, great! Reward yourself for your successes, seek out social support, and keep those motivational statements in mind – you need to keep going! A note of caution, though: A common mistake is to leap into action too quickly without spending enough time in the contemplation and preparation stages. It's okay to go back a stage and do some more planning if you need to!


If you need to maintain the changes you've made, your biggest challenge is going to be to avoid the temptation to slip back into your old ways. Think up some coping strategies to help you deal with this temptation before it arises so that you're prepared. Keep rewarding yourself for your successes. Do whatever you can to keep the changes you've made fresh and interesting.

Troubleshooting: Relapse

Perhaps you've done all the planning, put it into action, and kept your fitness regime going for a while but have now relapsed back to your old ways. You're probably feeling disappointed and frustrated that your efforts have, apparently, failed. Don't worry! Relapse is actually a recognised stage of change – it's normal, though not inevitable. Try to use it as a learning experience. What triggered the relapse? How can you stop it from happening again? What have you learned about the barriers to your success? Go back to your goals, re-affirm your commitment to change, and start again!




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