A hero for me of the year so far is Ruth Field, aka The Grit Doctor. Her achievement has been to help me to realise after 40-odd years of inactivity that it’s good to move. In fact to go beyond the realisation, because after all everyone knows exercise is good for you, and actually to do it and then keep doing it.
PE at my school was a pretty dispiriting experience if you weren’t inclined or able to shine. It was netball or hockey in the autumn and winter, tennis or athletics in the summer term. An occasional alternative if the weather was really bad: climbing bars and ropes in the school hall. I was one of those always the last to be picked for teams, always uncoordinated and hopeless at everything. What a relief to get into Sixth Form and leave it all behind forever.
Of course it was not just a matter of saying good-bye to Mrs Chester and Miss Bell, but also to any healthy exercise. I continued through adult life with a self-image of being useless at any sport/game and, whilst maintaining an acceptable BMI or whatever, probably not what anyone would classify as physically fit.
Enter, in a post-Christmas feature in The Times, Ms Field and her book
‘Run Fat B!tch Run’. As a result I am more toned, healthier, in touch with the benefits and serotonin arising from regular exercise, and out in the fresh air for a 3.5 mile circuit at 7am at least three times a week, more or less in all weathers. I miss it and feel ill-at-ease if I don’t go. It’s a major new behaviour established over a few months and on reflection it’s been an object lesson in bringing about lasting change.
The first step is to tap in to the knowledge or suspicion that the status quo won’t do. All individuals and organisations know that life isn’t as good as it could be. Even if it’s buried deep, somewhere there’s a nagging voice that says there’s a different way, and it’s probably a better one. Then what?
- approach whoever you are dealing with as one human being to another
- make it simple and practical
- make it fit with established preferences or what they are already doing (I have always been a morning person so getting up a 7am isn’t a problem)
- make it sound achievable, possibly even enjoyable (though the Grit Doctor would never admit this)
- make the change incrementally
- get them to try it just enough to begin to see some benefits
- emphasise that keeping it up is critical (‘if you don’t like re-starting, stop giving up’)
- be empathetic but not patronising, disclose what you find hard about it too
- get them to keep on keeping it up by motivating them with the benefits – or with the disbenefits of not doing it
- be available to answer questions and offer support
- offer role models, but not those who are so good that they are impossible to emulate
- have other sources of expertise available so that you don’t have to have all the answers
- encourage mutual support among those trying it out – social media platforms make this easy
- set goals
- let the new behaviour be its own reward, but also celebrate when goals are reached
So far, so straightforward. But there is another ingredient which can be harder to manage – personal style. Somehow Ruth’s approach just did it for me, but there are others whom she no doubt rubs up entirely the wrong way. When you write a book, you just have to write it, send it out into the world and hope for the best. Some will love it, others really won’t. But when you’re working in person to make change happen you need to adapt your style to suit the situation, which means: a) getting to know what your personal style is, and b) learning how to be heard by those whose preference is very different.
And that’s another story altogether.