From left, Andrea Sharp, Natalie Sahnow, Jacqueline Kramer, Josie Pritchard and Jacquelyn Culliton work out at Southern Oregon University.

Fit mind

Fitness. It's not about the calories you burn. It's not about your discipline getting to the gym. It's not about finding the most demanding workout.

As women are discovering, it's about changing your head around, upping your self-esteem, focusing on your quality of life and creating a support community of women who'll encourage you, laugh with you and work out with you.

These are the findings of a joint study by Jamie Vener, an assistant professor in health and physical education at Southern Oregon University and Jennifer Huberty, an expert in exercise and sport science at the University of Nebraska Omaha. They call the approach being "fit-minded."

Participants join a fitness book club and feed their minds with good information; they talk about it with each other, and they find activities they like and can easily stick with, says Huberty, leader of the project.

"It's for women who stop and start. You use theory and cognitive strategies. It's like personal training for the brain. It's barrier-busting," Huberty notes. "Most women don't know how to set goals, and this program teaches how to access support and feel better about yourself."

You'll notice that, in describing the strategy, its authors don't use the word "weight" at all, let alone "fat" or "slim." There's a reason for that, she notes.

"Women always go into it saying they want to lose weight. Other things should motivate them, like quality of life and how to feel good about yourself. The idea is 'I'm active, I feel good about myself,' not 'I'm losing weight.' "

Looking over scores of women working out (most with friends), Vener says enjoyment and self-confidence are the two key factors that help women stick to physical activity and overcome such obstacles as bad weather and family demands.

The old "just do it" model typically fires people up, especially at the beginning of the year, for about six weeks. Then life's demands take over, and a sense of defeat settles in, prolonging the struggle, says Vener.

"We're great at building programs and telling people what to do, but half quit after six weeks," says Vener, adding that women, as a rule, already are less physically active than men.

"As fitness professionals, we haven't been very successful, and now we're focusing less on physical outcomes and more on factors that promote long-term behavioral change."

The new, big-picture approach of changing minds and lives, not just dropping pounds, finds ready acceptance at the Ashland YMCA, where health and wellness director Freeborn Mondello says he stresses building personal relationships, making workouts part of your lifestyle and enhancing "well-being of body, mind and spirit, instead of saying 'drop and give me 20 (push-ups).' "

"The connection is on the personal level instead of the hard-core workout, and more and more people are coming around to that idea — that it's a lifestyle change, not a three-month program. It's one day at a time. You start easy and build gradually. Otherwise, it's work hard for a month, and we never see them again," says Mondello.

There were plenty of smiles on the faces of four SOU women working out in the college weight room. They all sang the praises of making fitness a lifestyle, one in which they supported each other.

"The other person says 'c'mon, let's go,' and it's a lot easier. We find what we love to do — yoga, dance, jazz dance. Without that support, a lot of people will quit, gain a little weight and be embarrassed to go back," says freshman Jacqueline Kramer.

Senior Andrea Sharp says going to the gym alone is "awkward," and it's motivating to have someone to go with.

"It makes you want to get back in shape. Once you stop, it's a lot easier to stay stopped," says junior Natalie Sahnow.

In her study, Huberty documented that women tend to be less active than men, they need accountability with others and they like social support of the sort they get through the fitness book club.

"Women always go into a program saying they want to lose weight, but the other things should motivate them, like quality of life and how they feel about themselves," says Huberty.

Of the 25 women in her study group, Huberty said 12 steadily lost weight, and a year later they had maintained the weight loss.

Huberty criticized commercial gyms for focusing on the workout instead of the behavior and said, "That's why gyms make so much money. They know you're not coming back. If every member used the gym, they wouldn't have room for them."

Lin Robbins of Talent, a personal trainer who has worked at commercial gyms, disagreed with that assessment but agrees with Vener's underlying thesis.

"A lot of trainers are saying positive behavioral change is necessary for success," Robbins says. "But just making you work very hard in something uncomfortable — no, that's being tortured, and few will go back."

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