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Get Off the Couch!

<i>Smart Fitness</i>

Americans are notoriously good about making New Year’s resolutions. We’re also notoriously good at breaking them. Of the 100 million or more of us who resolve to make some life-altering change in January, nearly half give up completely by February.

Why do we abandon our resolutions before the ink on the back of the cocktail napkin is even dry? Most people have a hard time staying motivated, according to a recent Harris Interactive survey.

We asked some of the country’s foremost exercise experts and lifestyle coaches for their best advice on how to set and ultimately reach your fitness goals this year. Being active needs to be a habit, says Kathy Smith, the face of 40 bestselling exercise videos and author of Feed Muscle, Shrink Fat Diet (Meredith Books, January 2008). “You don’t get up in the morning and think about whether or not you’re going to brush your teeth,” she says. “The same should be true of leading an active lifestyle. It should be part of the framework of your day.”

Read on for some words of wisdom from fitness lovers like Smith, Richard Simmons, and others; readers’ admittedly most ridiculous excuses for not working out; quick steps you can take today to jump-start your fitness program; and surprising tips about what really works.

Secrets of Success

Some people make a career out of motivating others to exercise. But what are their secrets?

Richard Simmons, 59
“I do something every day: four days I do cardio; two, strength training; one, walking. There are seven days in a week. God rested one day, but he’s God.

Kathy Smith, 56
“I have this little preworkout routine: some tea and a piece of gum or hard candy. Then I turn on the music and I’m ready to go.”

Ken Cooper, 76, the “Father of Aerobics”
“I exercise before the evening meal. It suppresses my appetite, so I keep my weight under control.

Jack LaLanne, 93
“I hate to work out. I’ve never liked to work out. So I get up at 5:00 and get it out of the way. I’m trying to see how long I can keep it up.”


Worst Excuses

A survey by the American Council on Exercise found that 19 percent of respondents don’t exercise because they’re out of shape. Excuse me? We thought that was a reason to exercise. Below are a few of our readers’ most absurd excuses for not exercising.

"Whenever I ride my bike in the park, some thief tries to get it away from me. And the last time I Rollerbladed, I broke my arm in two places at the shoulder."

—Gina Ross, 65, Chicago, Illinois

"My dog had surgery and couldn’t walk with me. And he cried if I went alone, so I had to stay home."

—Jacy Wade, 52, Charlotte Hall, Maryland

"I'm trying to gain weight, so when I do start my exercise plan, it will be more of a workout."

—David McDaniel, 44, Covington, Tennessee

Fast Ways to Jump-Start Your Fitness Program

1. Get up and change channels by hand, rather than using the remote.

2. Use the bathroom on another floor— and walk to get there.

3. Stop eating fried foods.

4. Skip drive-throughs. Park a distance away and walk whenever possible.

What Really Works

We’ve all heard the conventional advice for setting and keeping goals—write them down; choose small, reasonable goals (rather than gigantic, unobtainable ones); enlist your family and friends. All good suggestions, but we know from past experience that these tricks don’t always work. What does? You might be surprised.

Change all your bad habits at once

“Conventional wisdom says that if you’re going to try and get someone to change their behavior, don’t ask for too much,” says David Hyman, M.D., chief of general internal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who coauthored a study challenging that notion. “We thought, maybe if we ask for everything, we’ll get something.” Everything in this case was, indeed, quite a lot: Hyman and his colleagues asked patients to quit smoking, reduce their salt intake, and walk an extra 1,500 steps a day. The results, as reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine: those who were asked to change all their bad habits at once (rather than one habit at a time) tended to fare better.

Think negative

Another common refrain is “Focus on the positive.” But Greg Helmstetter, CEO of, an online goal-setting site, would have you do the opposite. “If you don’t identify the issues preventing you from reaching your goal, you won’t be able to overcome them,” he says. He suggests listing all the reasons why you can’t exercise. Next, each day after January 1, tackle one of those obstacles. Say you don’t have any exercise shoes. Your goal for Day 1 would be to go shopping. Don’t have a place to exercise? Day 2’s goal would be to find a gym. And so on, until you’ve run out of excuses.

Distract yourself

Sometimes, thinking about anything but exercise can keep you on the straight and narrow. In studies of older women, exercise physiologist Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., and psychologist James Annesi, Ph.D., found that background music, dimmed lights, pictures of vacation spots, and small talk helped exercisers stick with a program. “We found that if we made it an enjoyable experience, their compliance was enhanced—and they were more likely to become lifelong exercisers,” says Westcott, coauthor of Get Stronger, Feel Younger (Rodale, 2007).

Change your mind

“There’s a big difference between ‘I have to’ and ‘I want to,’ ” says exercise guru Kathy Smith. “If you say to yourself, ‘I have to lose weight’ or ‘I have to exercise more,’ you’re already setting yourself up for failure.” Instead, visualize what you want to be doing in five or ten years (traveling, running around with the grandkids), and then list the three or four activities you truly enjoy that will help you stay active enough to do those things. “It’s all about shifting your mindset,” she says, “so your 20-minute walk today isn’t about losing 20 pounds; it’s about leading an active lifestyle.”

Save the world

To some people, exercise is selfish—it takes time away from family, work, or other, seemingly more important obligations. If that’s what’s holding you back, sign up for one of the options on the growing list of activities for a cause. “People who don’t want to work out for themselves love this idea of working out for a purpose,” Smith says. So if the bigger cause appeals to you, register for a diabetes dance-athon, the AIDS Walk, the breast-cancer Race for the Cure, or another cause-related physical activity.

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