Motivating a Loved One: The Walking Cure

Thu, 6 June 2013 - 1:35 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Many regular exercisers know of someone who could use a fitness boost. Old, sedentary habits are hard to break, and we want to be there for those close to us to offer support, advice, and even the gentle push that’s sometimes required to get the exercise ball rolling in someone’s life. But how do we apply the right kind of pressure to help motivate a friend or relative, helping them see possibilities instead of obstacles? And how do we keep our enthusiasm from backfiring in our effort to show them that this could be their year to finally get fit?

If and when you plan to motivate a loved one toward a fitness lifestyle, keep in mind three essential principles:

  1. The fitness idea has to come from them.
  2. There’s a way to gently change their cognitive relationship to fitness.
  3. Don’t just say “I support you.” Be prepared to literally walk the walk.

Let’s look at these three principles in detail.

Beware of backlash. The fitness idea has to come from them. What seems gentle to us sometimes feels threatening, combative, and judgmental. Wait for a loved one to say that they would like to begin an exercise regimen. The first step is for them to feel empowered, and to perceive a sense of control. This is about going at your own pace, in every sense, and that means being an available and willing passenger on their journey, not the driver. 

Remember to insist on a very light several weeks to slowly ramp into a regimen that your friend is comfortable with. Too much too soon is the great vanquishing characteristic of most new exercise plans. Once they’re ready to give it a try, introduce a willing new exercise convert to effective motivation techniques not by way of lecturing, but by showing how they work for you. From there, good guidance means gently assisting with precisely how these would work if they wanted to try them:

Diary keeping—what’s mine can be yours. The ability to track progress and to hold oneself accountable has been shown repeatedly to be an effective weight-management tool. Your job is simply to make your own exercise and/or food diary keeping methods available to your friend: here’s how mine is formatted, here’s what I write, etc. When they think they’re ready to try it, accompany them to the stationery store or help them print templates off the web.

Setbacks—and how you deal with them. Again, lead by example and let your loved one know you too are vulnerable to blown workouts, lazy days, and the like. Mention one such recent setback and discuss overcoming it. Embed implicitly in this show-don’t-tell approach the raw fact that you never considered giving up on your long-term fitness plan.

Gear and gadgets—for use within reason. The latest moisture-wicking technology, noise-filtering headphones, or WebMD app can entice and excite new exercisers in the short-term, but just as often distract and, many superfluous purchases later, result in a failure to launch a real, personally internalized lifestyle change. Still, there are a few basic pieces of equipment and the occasional inexpensive technological advance that can inspire, motivate, and bring novel pleasure to a new workout lifestyle, where only dreary memories of failed attempts went before.

Ideas include calorie-counting websites that also track your physical activity, free heart rate monitor smart phone apps, and slimming, fashionable running clothing that your friend feels comfortable in and maybe even facilitates a glimpse of “the new you.” Quality running or walking shoes are a must. They are a practical and necessary step, and can also serve as a psychological enabler; many veteran runners know the feeling of strapping on the running shoes and the subsequent desire for takeoff they inspire, like no other footwear. Your fitness newbie does not know that feeling yet. A trip to the shoe store will help introduce them to its power.

Set aside results—teach that effort is the win. It takes time to realize that we runners don’t solely focus on race PRs. The thing to be proud of, to see as the success, is that on a given day we got out onto the road for a vigorous run or walk. This is important to convey in the early going, and differs from a similar, equally important idea we’ll discuss in detail next.

First, note that if you’re going to introduce someone who was formally sedentary to walking or any other fitness activity, always make sure they consult with their physician and undergo a physical examination prior to beginning.

Exercise is not the thing to get through, it’s the thing to get to. There’s a way to gently change their cognitive relationship to fitness. The way is to emphasize that the day’s walk is not a precursor to later me-time, it is the me-time. Rather than seeing exercise as an unpleasant means (tedious and painful abdominal crunches) to a desired end (rock-hard abs), it’s possible to change our thinking to orient around exercise as one of life’s greatest pleasures. Being let out of work is a chance to go burn calories and lower stress at the gym—the gym is not one more thing to do before going home and relaxing. As a regular exerciser, this alteration in thinking has likely already occurred within you, and you may not even be that aware of it. But this is a potentially revolutionary idea to a new exerciser, and can result in seeing that the reward is the run, walk, or bike trip home from work.

With a little enlightened help from you, here’s how it might look to a fitness novice: Work is a chance to walk. Work brings you out into the world, away from your home. Rather than drive in rush hour traffic, why not walk home from work? By simply bringing a backpack with water, a change of shoes, and other precautions like cab or bus fare, you can use the end-of-workday journey as a relaxing stress reducer. The physiology of this type of stress relief is powerful, and the psychological benefits closely tied to it.

We weren’t designed to sit in a car. There are two things very wrong with this ubiquitous afterwork form of transport. Pushing motorized pedals to propel ourselves is completely unnatural. Human beings were designed to propel forward by walking. Getting from point A to point B is supposed to require energy. At work, which itself once burned lots more calories in the form of hunting and gathering, we’ve stored up the day’s stress in the form of cortisol and unused adrenaline. As we all know by now, when we fail to burn off these stress-response hormones, a host of health problems can occur.

Worse, when the motor-vehicle commute doesn’t go well—which is often—we further add to the stress and even rage we feel while simultaneously not providing an appropriate outlet for it. In short, sitting in a car and not moving because of gridlock traffic is about as far from natural and healthy as you can get. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in, piled right on top of the day’s build-up of adrenaline and cortisol from sitting at a desk for eight to ten hours, and we cannot act by fight or by flight—we’re trapped sitting in a box.

By contrast, when you are on foot, you are solving the problem. The flight response is engaged, and this literally feels good. We use up the adrenaline that has accumulated that day, without adding more of it from any sort of gridlock scenario. Your body will thank you, and what’s good for the body is good for the brain. Serotonin levels rise, blood flow increases, problems seem easier to solve, the balance restores.

Further still, a study published two years ago in the American Heart Association journal Stroke found a link between regular walking and reduced stroke risk in women—a strong link, and one not found with other types of exercise like running, swimming, and biking. There may be something special about the lower intensity activity of walking that makes it effective in reducing stroke risk.

Women who walked briskly for at least two hours a week had a 37% less likely chance of developing stroke than women who did not walk. The researchers studied just under 40,000 women over 45 years of age, drawing on data collected from the Women’s Health Study.

The power of a partner. Don’t just say “I support you.” Be prepared to literally walk the walk. It’s ineffective and may even be irritating to tell someone that you’re there for them. They know you are fully behind their efforts. What they need is for you to do the activity with them, as much as possible, until a pattern and a habit are both firmly in place. One way this helps is obviously by providing companionship on the run or walk—time flies when you’re having fun. And quality, TV-free one-on-one time with a close friend or loved one certainly qualifies as fun. In fact, it can make the Walking Cure seem indistinguishable from the Talking Cure.

Another way this works wonders is that when someone is scheduled to meet a friend in the park at 7 a.m., they are much less likely to snooze-alarm away the workout. People don’t like to break commitments. Have a no-cell-phone rule for 12 hours prior to the scheduled meet-up; then turn your phone off. The thought of you “stood up” in the cold morning air while your friend fails to show up will in all but the worst emergency situations be too much for them to bear. They’ll be there, and so will you.

Or, what about group runs? These once-a-week social affairs can provide novelty to an established regimen and allow for more diverse levels of information sharing, or if necessary, even the occasional commiseration. As it happens, there is a terrific, nationwide excuse to group run coming up in early May:

Run—or walk—that very first mile. National Run a Mile Days is here again; this time, events will be staged May 6 through 12. This ARA-organized nationwide celebration of the mile attempts to engage school-age children in running but has been a gateway to physical activity for people of all ages. If you’re attempting to motivate a loved one this spring, consider taking advantage of the national momentum to get out and moving during this special week. Your Run a Mile Day can be as competitive or as easy-going as your school or community sees fit. The ARA suggests holding the competitive events within each age group as the last heat of each.

If you would like to organize an event for Run a Mile Days, there may still be time. Though official registration deadlines are past, the ARA might be able to provide t-shirts in limited quantities for small groups. Either way, do visit the new website for free downloads of both the finisher’s certificate and operations guide, as well as other useful materials.

Stroke, April 6, 2010,




(RUNNING & FITNEWS® March / April 2012 • Volume 30, Number 2)




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