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Why do you exercise? Why do you not exercise?
Changing your behaviour is not easy, but sometimes it’s necessary. For some, the challenge is adopting a more physically active lifestyle. The benefits of an active lifestyle are clear – it reduces the likelihood of heart problems, diabetes and obesity, alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety, and the list goes on. Despite the myriad of benefits, there are still barriers preventing people from initiating and committing to regular exercise, and thus they live relatively inactive lifestyles.
"Understanding the psychological factors behind why we do or do not exercise is key to not only helping ourselves, but influencing change in others as well."
With the assumption that we all have an equal understanding of the benefits of exercise, why do some people “choose” to remain sedentary?
People may have a million different reasons for not exercising, but you could argue it comes down to the fact that these individuals haven’t internalized pro-exercise attitudes, beliefs and values (Garrin, 2014). On the surface, you may know that exercise is beneficial, but how much do you truly believe that exercise is necessary? How much do you value the outcomes of exercise? How much do you believe in your own ability to impact your health and wellbeing through exercise? How hard do you think it’ll be to start changing your behaviour and to overcome the setbacks along the way?
For example, some people may believe that exercise is not absolutely necessary despite the benefits, possibly believing that there are other ways to attain those same benefits e.g. healthy diet. Others may have tried being more physically active before, but succumbed to old habits and now use previous failures as reasons to not try again.
Ask yourself the following question: Why do you/ don’t you exercise? Reflect on that and be honest with yourself.
The answer to this question implies our internal attitudes, beliefs and values towards exercise, and has important implications for both our willingness to initiate exercise-related behaviours and our ability to adhere to a physically active lifestyle in the long-term.
Satisfying Basic Psychological Needs
According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985), people are internally motivated to engage in an activity because it satisfies their basic psychological needs of: autonomy, competence and relatedness.
People are more motivated to engage in exercise if they feel like the decision to do so is of their own free will (autonomy). Commitment to regular exercise is higher when people don’t feel any pressure or an obligation to exercise, but rather enjoy the experience and see exercise as important in reaping certain benefits i.e. staying healthy, socializing etc.
We feel good about ourselves when we successfully complete or master challenging tasks. This describes our basic need to feel competent. In this regard, your motivation to exercise is also associated with your perception of your ability to achieve your exercise-related goals and overcome the obstacles along the way.
Finally, people engage in activities to feel a meaningful connection with others. We may play a sport, go to the gym, or simply go on walks as a way to bond and spend some time with friends and other like-minded individuals. Having a common purpose and similar values with others further enhances this feeling of relatedness.
The degree to which these needs are fulfilled is associated with how intrinsically motivated the individual is to exercise – that is how internally motivated the person is, and this is strongly linked with the person’s likelihood to engage and persist in exercise behaviours.
"Keeping SDT in mind, there are several things we can do to adopt and maintain a commitment to regular exercise. "
- Pick an exercise you genuinely enjoy
Should go without saying that you’re way more likely to want to continue doing something the more you enjoy it.
2. Set progressively more challenging yet attainable goals
Start with a relatively easily achievable goal within your exercise, and work to achieve that. As you complete increasingly challenging goals, confidence in your own abilities will also increase.
- Plan for setbacks
Obstacles and setbacks are inevitable in doing anything worthwhile. Don’t let them paralyze you from ever starting, be aware of the things that might get in your way and the setbacks you may face, and have a contingency plan detailing what you plan to do should these arise.
- Find a friend
Exercising with others – whether that’s by joining a team or having a gym partner – gives us a chance to connect and motivate one another.
Reflect upon your exercise experiences (e.g. in a journal). Be aware of the challenges you face and set goals to overcome them. Focus on the positive aspects of the experience. The more positives you start to see, the more you’ll start exercising out of your own volition.
Encouraging change in others
For people like fitness trainers or sports coaches, motivating others in regards to exercise is a key aspect of their jobs. Interacting with others in a manner that promotes feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness can encourage others to begin the process of change, and importantly to be persistent and stick with their new routine.
Below are some basic principles for creating a motivational atmosphere:
- Empathy – Acknowledge that behaviour change is hard, and your clients may find it extremely challenging. Listen to their struggles without judgement.
- Balance – Balance levels of challenge and support. Steadily increase the difficulty of exercises as clients accomplish their goals. Give them positive feedback to increase feelings of competence, and help them when exercises are too difficult. Remember exercises should be sufficiently challenging that clients find it rewarding to accomplish, but are also well-within their capabilities.
- Choice – Do not pressure your client to do anything. Provide meaningful rationales for engaging in exercise. Give them choice over the activity or exercise they would like to do.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self- determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press Publishing Co.
Garrin, J. M. (2014). Self-efficacy, self-determination, and self-regulation: The role of the fitness professional in social change agency. Journal of Social Change, 6(1), 4.
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