Two weeks ago in a certification course we discussed behavior change as it relates to fitness. Most of us had heard of the five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, but a sixth step was introduced: relapse. Relapse – stopping the new behavior.
That’s right: relapse is a natural part of the fitness journey. And yet, have you heard much talk about it?
Me either. Let’s change that.
Set backs happen. They’ve happened to me!
- Precontemplation: you’re not ready or may not even think the behavior needs changing.
- Contemplation: you notice the behavior and are thinking about possibly changing it.
- Preparation: you’re ready to change and possibly taking small steps towards change.
- Action: you are actively working on developing a new behavior.
- Maintenance: you maintain the behavior for a sustained amount of time.
- Relapse: when your new behavior isn’t being performed for some reason.
Relapses are an unavoidable part of the journey, but they can feel very difficult. Part of the reason for this is that during the other stages of change, we incorporate a new behavior into our identity: it becomes part of who we are. When we can’t (or don’t) do that behavior anymore, we feel we have lost part of our identity, and that doesn’t feel good.
It doesn’t help that our culture frames relapse as a “bad” thing or a failure. So our entire identity can feel like a failure. Yikes!
The good news is that you are NOT a failure if you have a relapse. Again, relapse is normal and unavoidable. If you’re having a relapse, it means you’re on the normal path of fitnessing, or change in general.
Relapse as Detour
I’ve had a few relapses in my fitness journey — I’ll share one with you. In October of 2017, I sustained a labral tear in my left hip. It meant for about 6 months I really couldn’t do much in regards to working out. However, I could still train my core, upper body and do my PT exercises for my hip and glute muscles. It felt like a significant step back from fitnessing, because lifting heavy was a significant part of my identity, and without that I felt frustrated and a little lost.
Relapse can create dissonance between a previous way we identified (e.g. strong, good cardio, consistent worker-outer) and how we currently identify: (e.g. injured, inconsistent, less strong). We may view a relapse as a slide into a previous identity we felt needing some changing, and that can bring up some unwanted feelings. We may begin to frame this as a “failure”, per those strong messages from the dominant culture. But what if we said “f*&k that!” and reframed a relapse as a simple part of the process?
By being on a fitness journey, you are participating in a dynamic, multi-faceted process of learning, growing and changing. Not every step is up. Some steps are sideways or backward.
When I relapsed with my labral tear, I found that I was able to go deeper into my exploration of core exercises, and I learned that moving my body is also super important to my mental health too. Things I wouldn’t have learned if I had not had the injury. I think of this experience as more of a detour than a setback because I learned many valuable things.
Of course not all relapses are from injuries; sometimes you stop a new behavior for some other reason (e.g. family member, work, illness). In that case, if you adopt the feelings of “failure” you may not come back to your change journey. If instead you think of this as a normal part of the process, you will come back and keep going. Sometimes just knowing this is normal is all you need to know to keep going!
You’ve. Got. This! We all go through it.
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