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May 2, 2004
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Get tough one habit at a time
Since our willpower is in such short supply, focus on changing your ways incrementally. Otherwise, Loehr says cheerily, you're guaranteed to fail. For starters, you can work your way through the following list of daily doings. Move on to the next ritual only after the previous one has become habit. (You probably already have some nailed.) Give yourself up to three weeks for each one, and remember that it's fine to blow off everything one day a week. You might actually miss your new good habits. —P.K.

1. Get up within an hour of the same time every morning.
2. Eat a healthy breakfast that includes whole-grain breads or cereal with lowfat milk, fresh fruit, and some form of protein, like poached eggs or ham.
3. Begin your first ritual, or "good habit," designed to help you achieve a specific goal.
4. Drink eight glasses of water throughout the day.
5. Implement a second ritual.
6. Work out twice a week.
7. Take a break every 90 minutes to two hours in the morning.
8. Add a third ritual.
9. Eat a healthy lunch that includes a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
10. Increase your workouts to three times a week.
11. Take a break every 90 minutes to two hours in the afternoon.
12. Adopt a fourth ritual.
13. Eat a healthy dinner.

Shrink rap: sports psychologist David Striegel on stage (above)

It's a cold, dark afternoon back in Manhattan, a week into the LGE program and my new life. Walking with a group of friends in high spirits as we leave a classical concert on the East River, I'm still trying to snap-to after nodding through Shostakovich. We stop in a swanky bar and everyone orders drinks; I, however, have already used up the one day per week I'm allotted to disregard my nutrition program, so I order seltzer and vet the skimpy bar menu, which consists mostly of pâté and cheeses. I settle on the salmon appetizer. After gulping down three small strips of fish (which set me back 20 bucks), I'm starving. I've been very good at keeping my meals small and frequent but not so good at bringing low-fat ham sandwiches and cottage cheese along on Sunday outings.

I've almost had it. I push back my plate and plop my forehead on the table. "Hey, check out the world-class performer!" somebody snickers. I have no energy to parry or even to make a bid for sympathy by listing the chronology of my brutal week. It started with a party that kept me out till 4 a.m. my first day back from Orlando. (Well, Striegel did stress how important it is to have a social life.) I proudly stuck by my 7 a.m. wake-up call the next morning, but things went downhill from there. My days became a groggy blur of laps to the gym and health food store, and I was barely making a dent in the mound of work on my desk.

I'm beginning to understand why serious athletes prefer living in training camps in sunny climes. Out here in the real world, I have no entourage of coaches and handlers organizing my schedule, preparing my meals, and supervising my workouts. Slumped on the table, howls of derision ringing in my ears, I try to recall my second day at LGE, when I finally met Loehr and he tried to prep me for such moments.


As I sit squirming in the conference room, Striegel bearing down, there comes a knock at the door. In walks a tall, slim man with a sun-weathered face. Jim Loehr has a relaxed, almost grandfatherly warmth about him; when I tell him that his henchman was stripping me bare, he lets loose with a booming laugh. Loehr can work himself into a holy roller's lather on his motivational tapes (available, naturally, in the gift shop off the reception area), but in person he's reassuringly low-key, with an undercurrent of no-nonsense intensity. Dealing with athletes all his life has equipped him with a coach's gruffness. When I ask how to deal with dismissive or discouraging remarks from friends, he replies, "Tell them, 'While you're dragging your sorry ass around, I'm gonna be tough as shit!'"

With that, Loehr goes on inspirational autopilot and launches into his Nick Anderson story. Seems the all-time leading scorer for the Orlando Magic had been a basket case ever since missing four straight free throws in the 1995 NBA finals. It got so he wouldn't even drive to the hoop because he was worried he'd get fouled and have to go to the line. Finally, his agent forced him to see Loehr before the 1998–99 season. So Anderson, all 6-foot-6 of him, sat right here in this same little conference room and "faced the truth."

"What kind of shape are you in?" Loehr asked him.

"Awesome," Anderson is said to have replied. "Maybe my best ever."

Loehr shakes his head just thinking about it. "I mean, the guy was fat," he roars, laughing. "He couldn't move."

Rob Howard
Spin Doctor: Gray fine-tunes the RX for aerobic intensity

One big reason Anderson was so unmotivated to get into shape, Loehr says, was that he deeply resented it when the Magic moved him to forward to make room for Penny Hardaway at shooting guard. But after four months at LGE, Anderson had a nearly miraculous turnaround. He began driving to the hole, attacking on defense, and his per-game average soared from six points to 29. The kicker? He grew so consistent at the free-throw line that he became the Magic's designated technical-foul shooter, even in clutch situations.

The key to such transformations, says Loehr, lies in a single, terrifying word: discipline. Picking up a marker, he draws a big pie chart on a whiteboard to explain why discipline is so hard to develop. "We're creatures of habit," he says. "Studies show 95 percent of our behavior is based on habit and only 5 percent on decisions we make consciously, which includes going against the grain of those habits when we're trying to change something. So how much willpower do we have? Not very much."

His point is supported by a 1998 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in which subjects were left alone with chocolate-chip cookies and told not to eat them. Intriguingly, those who resisted the cookies found self-control more difficult in the next task, which was completely unrelated—solving a puzzle. Other studies on the subject have reached the same conclusion: Our capacity for self-control is quite small and easily expended.

"If people have to use willpower every time they exercise, our research shows it lasts a maximum of three weeks," Loehr says. This might explain why health clubs are jammed after New Year's and empty by February. "They can't do it because there's simply not enough energy here," he says, pointing to the remaining 5 percent slice of the pie. "You've got to get positive behaviors, like working out, into this big, habitual side as soon as possible. Once you do, they become automatic and everything starts getting easier. Now you're working out, getting up earlier, going to bed earlier, and you have more energy all day because you're hydrating and eating right."

In short, he concludes, "You don't need more willpower, because now these things are habits."

Physiologist William Kraemer, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, agrees. "Anytime you initiate a new program such as exercise, it triggers the fight-or-flight response necessary for survival," he says. "The body gears up to adapt to these new external demands so that future exposure to stress won't be as stressful." As the body becomes fitter, it comes to expect exposure to the level of stress it can now handle. Perhaps most surprising, as you become stronger physically, you're better able to deal with other kinds of stress in life. This is because your body responds to mental and emotional stress in almost exactly the same way it responds to physical stress. "Your breathing goes up, your adrenal glands are stimulated, your blood pressure rises," Kraemer says. "If your body is used to those alarms, it adapts quickly."

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