The benefits of exercise are well known: athletic development, physical health, psychological wellness, enhanced mood, sense of accomplishment, and an attractive body.
Despite the obvious advantages, it can be difficult to initiate or adhere to an exercise program. Given the numerous desirable consequences, it’s somewhat confusing that so many people avoid exercise. In this article, I’ll cover some of the predictors of poor adherence and describe behavioral and cognitive strategies for promoting exercise behavior.
Explanations for Poor Adherence
One of the most frequently cited reasons for failing to adhere to an exercise program is lack of time. For most people, this argument is questionable: We seem to be able to find the time to watch TV, use the computer, and participate in other leisure activities. The “lack of time” argument is a convenient one, but for many of us, there’s clearly more to avoidance of exercise than time limitations.
Some identify lack of motivation as an explanation for poor adherence, but this lacks clarity. The word, “motivation,” is ambiguous. If we hope to increase motivation, we must be specific about its meaning. In psychology, there are numerous theoretical models used to explain motivating forces. Some motivators are stable, persistent, and inflexible. Others are potentially modifiable. Let’s consider both.
What is Motivation?
Stable theories of motivation concern biological drives (food, sex, relationships), personality traits (emotional stability, resiliency), or the desire to fulfill one’s potential and find meaning in life. Because these factors are difficult or impossible to modify, they are not particularly useful as targets for exercise behavior change.
Consider traits, for example. Traits vary along a continuum. We might hypothesize that people with high levels of extraversion (activity and sociability) and conscientiousness (responsibility and commitment) are more likely to exercise. But if that’s true, where does it leave people with low levels of these traits? Are the introverted or impulsive destined to be non-exercisers?
Strategies to promote physical activity must address the motivating forces that are both modifiable and directly related to exercise behavior. For these reasons, behavioral and cognitive models of motivation are particularly useful.
According to the behavioral perspective, exercise behavior is influenced directly by the physical and social environment. Although measuring and manipulating the timing, frequency, and intensity of the environment as it relates to exercise behavior can be quite challenging, we can simplify this theoretical model for now by highlighting the “stimulus-response” relationship between the environment and exercise behavior. It’s easy to find real-life examples that fit this perspective.
Obstacles in the physical environment include
- excessive heat
- poor air quality
- distance from the gym or a scenic location
- the comfort of bed in the early morning
Obstacles in the social environment include
- children who need supervision
- entertaining social opportunities
- lack of social support during exercise
- work and family responsibilities
Antecedents and Consequences
If we manipulate the environment to promote exercise behavior, we can do so by changing the antecedents and consequences of behavior. Antecedents precede behavior. Consequences follow behavior.
Antecedents may take the form of cues. Examples of cues to exercise might be the alarm clock or other electronic reminders, the presence of friends who encourage you to exercise, a photo or inspiring message on the refrigerator or other strategic location, or journaling about your exercise goals and experiences.
Consequences of exercise that increase the likelihood of participating in physical activity again include well-being or a positive emotional response and changes to health or physical appearance.
The problem with these two consequences is a) sometimes the outcome of exercise is exhaustion or pain, which can decrease the likelihood of exercising again, and b) it can take time for exercise-related changes in health or appearance to be evident.
Potential solutions to these problems include a) allow yourself to take a day off or exercise lightly when you aren’t physically or emotionally prepared for the aftermath of a tough workout, and b) in the early stages of an exercise program, find immediate consequences that will keep you going until the long-term benefits appear.
If social consequences are meaningful for you, exercise with friends who will provide encouraging verbal feedback or go out for breakfast with people in your exercise group.
According to the cognitive perspective, exercise behavior is influenced by beliefs and attitudes. There are four types of cognitive events that can impact exercise behavior.
The first is goals. Having specific goals increases the likelihood that you will exercise. Goals should also be short- and long-term and written down.
The second cognitive event is outcome expectancy. You are more likely to exercise if you believe that it will result in desirable consequences.
The third cognitive event is outcome value. You are more likely to exercise if you value the consequence of exercise.
The fourth cognitive event, and perhaps the most important, is self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to the belief that you’re able to engage in an activity that will result in a desirable outcome. We might also think of this as a confidence belief. Self-efficacy is domain specific. You may have high self-efficacy in relation to forming relationships or your job, but low self-efficacy related to exercise. When self-efficacy is high, task persistence is more likely. And persistence is important in relation to exercise behavior because there are so many obstacles present.
Self-Efficacy of Exercise
So how can exercise self-efficacy be increased? One way is to exercise with friends. There are two explanations for this: The first is that we become more confident in our ability to engage in an activity if we observe competent behavior in others. “My friend can do this; I can, too.” The second is that positive verbal feedback from others can increase self-efficacy. Mutual encouragement goes a long way, so be sure to share support for each other, particularly through the early stages of an exercise program.
The factor that has been shown to have the strongest impact on self-efficacy is perceived competency. Take on manageable projects to build self-efficacy instead of experiencing defeat by being too ambitious. Over time, as you engage in exercise behavior successfully and repeatedly, your exercise self-efficacy will increase.
Putting it All Together
In the early stages of an exercise program, use cues to initiate exercise behavior and manipulate consequences of exercise behavior to increase the likelihood you’ll exercise again in the future. Social support can be useful as a cue AND as a consequence.
Use cognitive strategies as well. Write down specific short- and long-term goals, what you believe you will experience (outcome expectancy) as a result of exercise, and what you value most (outcome value) about exercise. Revisit these ideas when motivation is low.
Over time, as you use these behavioral and cognitive strategies to promote regular and successful involvement in exercise, you’ll experience an increase in self-efficacy, which is perhaps the most important predictor of long-term success in an exercise program.