5 Ways To Reset and Jumpstart Your Journey to Better Back and Joint Health
Nothing seems to cast doubt on our own capabilities quite like a rut when it comes to improving your health, particularly if you are experiencing chronic back and joint pain. Maybe you’ve lapsed on your exercise therapy and started to feel pain again, and don’t know how to overcome this rut...
The truth is that it’s normal to fall off the wagon sometimes, to the extent that you could argue that it’s an essential part of life. Normalizing these experiences is not an excuse to not do better, but to help move away from negative thoughts and use them as learning opportunities instead so they don’t happen as often, and so we can bounce back faster when they do.
Before we dive in, I wanted to bring in an example of someone I’ve worked with as a behavioral health coach at Hinge Health, since many of the ideas I’m about to share are inspired by my work with him. Meet Matt, a mechanic and father of two in our shoulder program at Hinge Health. For months, he used exercise therapy with great success to reduce pain that had been lingering since an injury and subsequent surgery years prior. He started to drop off, doing less than his norm for a few weeks and then stopped entirely. When we chatted on the phone, he said he felt like he was stuck in the same loop for the past few months since taking on new responsibilities at work. We’ll come back to how it all turned out for him.
So if ruts are normal, just how do we get out of them quicker? I’d be remiss to claim I have a surefire answer, but if there are any general strategies that seem to go a long way, it would those that fall under “self-monitoring”, which research has shown to be effective in helping people change behavior in certain contexts.
5 steps to reset your mind and build new habits
Here are five steps to help you reset your mind and build new habits to get you out of your rut. I like to break this process down into five parts: reset, reflect, plan, track, and reward.
I believe this to be an important part since a rut is typically stressful in one way or another, whether that’s because we’re actively worrying or feeling apathetic from burnout. As such, having strategies to help you unwind and detach from the habits and narratives that have kept you down can be useful. Here are some that have worked for me and for Hinge Health participants I’ve worked with.
Be spontaneous. There’s a kind of mental “stiffness” that can come with being in a rut, so help your mind unlock by doing something you normally wouldn’t, or even something you enjoy but haven’t done in a while. Mix up the usual things like going for a walk by taking a different route in your neighborhood or another part of town. This helps open your mind up to fresh perspectives and possibilities.
Be creative. Remember that make believe game you used to play when you were seven years old, and how much authentic fun you had? Well, I’m not about to tell you to go play that same game here today, but this essential childhood behavior is there for a reason, and those needs don’t just disappear as we move through life. Being creative serves many purposes for our emotional health, and it’s especially relevant when in a rut, since we usually feel like we’re bound to the monotony of daily tasks without room for expressing ourselves or exploring our own thoughts and feelings. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, and the answer is no, you don’t have to be a renowned pianist or prolific painter to enjoy the insights and sense of freedom that this can provide! Try a five-minute free-write or draw, putting down onto paper whatever comes to mind. You may be surprised by new insights, or just feel more clarity by making what was in your mind more tangible by seeing your thoughts in front of you.
Declutter and change your space. Your physical environment has a direct impact on your mood. This might be even more apparent if you’ve recently started working from home and are seeing your work and personal worlds intersect in a way you’re not used to. Whether you consider yourself a neat freak or someone who doesn’t mind a bit of clutter, just rearranging and putting things back where they belong at home can support clarity of mind.
Call a friend. Never underestimate the power of another mind. A sounding board can help you clarify your thoughts, so try calling or getting together with a supportive friend, whether you’ve talked to them recently or not. Your time with them doesn’t have to revolve around or even be at all about your rut, as simply connecting with another person can help you think more positively and lead to fresh insights.
Rest (actually). With all that can come up in a busy week, it’s important to have space to simply be. This might be the hardest strategy to implement if you’re not used to truly letting your mind rest without thinking about what else has to be done. It’s also especially relevant in our modern era of smartphones, since there is a bottomless vat of distractions sitting in our pockets. Even just five or ten minutes of quiet time can go a long way. The key is to be intentional about how and where you spend this time and committing to keeping distractions out. We’re (not) looking at you, screens!
Quit something. This one might be a little shocking, since quitting anything is generally frowned upon. Have you heard of the sunk cost fallacy? This refers to our loss aversive tendency as humans. We frequently will continue doing or holding onto something just because we’ve been doing so for a long time, even if it isn’t serving us. In reality, stopping something that doesn’t serve who you are now can be a massive boost—it frees up time and bandwidth for what truly matters. We all have necessary responsibilities that give our lives purpose, so it’s delineating between that and what isn’t essential.
So, you’ve helped yourself hit the figurative reset button. Congrats! Seriously, allowing yourself that room is not always easy. A fresher perspective will help cultivate compassion and mental flexibility. It’s important to emphasize compassion, since we’re usually our own worst critic. By softening this inner voice, we create space to generate creative solutions.
We’re now at a place where we can start to more accurately reflect on our experiences so that we can develop awareness of what our ruts look like and what leads to them. Let’s list a few common factors that can influence them to spark some thought as to what may be contributing for you.
Time: Everyone knows it, but it bears repeating: time is at a premium, which can make some health habits impractical or appear more daunting.
Distractions: Our brains crave the easiest reward, and many times, these are things that unwittingly take us away from our goals.
Stale routines – Though routines are good for us, they can feel stale when they aren’t serving our goals and ideals.
- Perfectionism: Expecting the ideal version of our habit from the beginning can keep us from taking action in the first place, since we’re holding ourselves to an unattainable standard. This can also apply to when we are trying to take on status quo bias – This is a concept in psychology that describes our tendency to stay the same, and it particularly applies to longer ruts. If we are used to doing or not doing something, then we have momentum in that direction, and studies have shown) that we prefer the consequences of staying the same to those of something new. We then begin to rationalize our inaction to help ease the stress of not doing what we know we should.
Take a moment now to reflect on where your rut is coming from and if you can see any trends. I recommend starting a journal at this stage to give yourself a place to be honest and test ideas about your situation. Brainstorm solutions and alternative viewpoints that will help you keep perspective. For example, if you have no time for exercise in the morning, even though that’s when you’d prefer to, consider a different time of day and what else you need to do to make that work. If you find discomfort, articulate what it is that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps exercising means using your leisure time in a way that you’re not used to, or adding more healthy foods means sacrificing some of your favorite dishes. Weigh this out by writing about it, looking for ways to make doing it easier and more engaging, or to accept and change thoughts around it.
- 3. & 4. Plan & Track:
Now that you know your situation a little better, it’s time to put that renewed energy and perspective to use and get back in the saddle! One of the best ways to do this is to start small, and I mean microscopically so, at least in comparison to what you’re probably used to. When feeling refreshed, it can be tempting to start biting off as much as we possibly can toward our end goal, but this often becomes more than we can chew. To avoid this common pitfall, focus on building up your habits from ground zero.
Start with a small amount of what you want to do, for example, five minutes of exercise, or one meal a day with healthier food choices. Of course, habits don’t happen in isolation from the rest of our lives, so we should also think about what is going on around it. For example, you can set the alarm to wake up 10 minutes earlier, create the calendar event in your workday and block off time around it, or tell your family that your goal is to do this before dinner.
For accountability and motivation, track it with a physical calendar, writing in the goal for each day in the month ahead, and what you were able to complete. Gamify it and see how many days in a row you can keep the streak going! Gradually increase the amount you’re doing until you are back to where you want to be. Benchmark yourself against what you did yesterday, rather than comparing to what you were doing before or what someone else is doing today.
A tip if you still find yourself not following through on your plan: make a deal with yourself to apply the “two-minute rule”. Show up and do just two minutes. The important part when starting is getting our habit-building reps in, not how long we can go for. You might even try typing up and printing out a “contract” with yourself to outline your commitment, and posting it where it is visibly accessible in your home.
Last but not least, the fun part we’ve all been waiting for! As mentioned, our brains seek perceived rewards, and according to behavior change expert BJ Fogg, a small celebration is just the trick to start connecting that part of our biology with the desired habit.This can be anything from doing a fist bump, nodding your head, clapping your hands, a little victory dance, or even just an internal “good job”. It might feel a bit odd at first, but these quick, intentional celebrations will start clicking more and help you keep the momentum going.
Don’t just stop there, though; give yourself something to look forward to and set up milestone rewards along the way! What kinds of healthy rewards can you apply for sticking with it for a few days, a week, a month, etc.?
Maintain the Habit
Of course, the journey doesn’t end here, as we need to continually take action and go back to the drawing board when we need to course correct. I again want to highlight the value of consistently making time for reflection. This is by far the most important step, in my opinion, because no matter what system we have in place, we will still most likely fall off again in some way at some point. Having space to reflect on a regular basis is a way to identify what’s going well and how to keep it going, while monitoring when we’re flailing and why, so we don’t get too deep in a rut. I recommend blocking off this time on your calendar once a week for at least twenty minutes of journaling. Protect that time like it’s a mandatory meeting; don’t let distractions get in the way.
Going back to Matt, he discovered it wasn’t that he couldn’t adapt his routine to the new schedule, he just needed to unwind a bit and start small. “I honestly just miss being plugged in and having a little fun. It’s been a little while since I’ve had a game or movie night with my family. But my habits seem to flow better for me when I’m enjoying my life.” So instead of immediately diving back into the exercise routine, Matt prioritized what he knew he needed, and spent the weekend with his family and friends. Feeling ready again, he shared his new plan the following week to start from ground zero and gradually ramp up over the next month until he was back to where he was.
Ruts are an inevitable part of building and maintaining health habits. For Matt, it was going back to what brings him joy. For you, it could be something else. However you climb out of your rut — if you’re patient, give yourself space to intentionally reset, start small and keep that focus — you will be back on track in no time.
Michael Craigen is a health coach at Hinge Health. For the last 5 years, he has helped individuals navigate and overcome chronic pain through ongoing lifestyle and mindset support. A board-certified health coach since 2018, he has a master's degree in Integrative Health from the California Institute of Integral Studies.