I’ve had 2 very similar conversation with 2 very different people this weekend. Both women, they are experiencing the same problem: motivating themselves to exercise. They both have very different reasons for exercising but, like many of us, are struggling to find the time, energy and motivation.
This, along with my ongoing irritation with the ‘push it hard, make it hurt’ attitude of many fitness professionals has led me to doing a bit of research on the psychology of exercise and how we can inspire people to get active without forcing them into hard, intimidating, unpleasant routines which they are not going to stick to.
An article in the February 2006 Idea Fitness Journal by Gavin, McBrearty and Sequin reviewed more than 250 studies about exercise psychology to try to find out what motivates us and how we can structure exercise to increase adherence. I’ll summarise the findings of the article and then offer some tips on how best to structure your exercise so you enjoy it, get results and, most importantly, make it a long-term part of your lifestyle.
What motivates us?
In the article, various studies concluded that the majority of people exercise for positive health reasons with the importance of physical appearance as a factor declining with age. Regardless of age or sex, social support from family and friends is critically important for exercise adherence, and enjoyment didn’t figure as a relevant motivator for any of the groups in one study, regardless of age or sex. This last point, I feel, is crucially important as it shows that exercise is perceived as a ‘necessary evil’, a mindset we need to change-more about that later.
What type of exercise and how long?
In terms of duration, the results of studies indicate that more frequent, moderate intensity, shorter workouts produce more positive mood changes than their less frequent, lower intensity, longer counterparts with comparable physical results. The authors of one such study concluded that low intensity workouts many not be challenging enough to maintain motivation. Another study discovered that the greater the frequency of exercise, the better the adherence.
One study reported that, when exercising to a high intensity and a transition to anaerobic metabolism was required (where your lungs are no longer capable of supplying oxygen to the muscles and the body has to rely on other energy sources such as glycogen. It’s not possible to maintain this state for longer than a few minutes), increased negative effects were reported.
Unsurprisingly, people doing what they enjoyed reported more positive mood changes. A study gave a group of people an exercise of their choice and a no-choice exercise of stationary cycling. Not only did the cycling produce a negative mood effect, but a control group watching TV actually produced a more positive result than the cycling.
Distractions feature highly in regular exercise participation. 60 minutes of running was found to be less effortful than 30 minutes. Why? Because the runners were able to ‘tune out’ and distract from the running itself. In an aerobics class, participants reported the music as a distraction to the activity. A study on virtual reality games reported that when video games were combined with exercise, energy was increased, enjoyment was increased and tiredness was decreased in participants compared to video games being done without exercise. It is worth noting, however, that the distraction in itself must be enjoyable!
Non-active people were found to use self-defeating talk such as “I’m too tired” and wishful thinking whereas active people use more productive phrases such as “just do it”. The most active people made non-negotiable plans and avoided arguing about exercise.
So, how can we use these findings to devise a successful exercise plan?
Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way to including exercise in your life, enjoying it and finding a long-term solution to sticking with it:
1. Try out loads of activities and ask yourself which one/s you enjoy the most. All this research (and common sense!) shows that if you don’t like doing something, you won’t do it. If you’re a member of a gym, don’t feel as though you have to use every bit of equipment. Find the ones you enjoy and stick to it. If you don’t enjoy the gym, don’t go. There’s plenty you can do outside of the gym and still get physical benefits. Try walking, jogging, cycling or swimming.
2. Do it regularly. Exercise 4-5 times a week to give yourself the best chance of sticking to it.
3. Don’t push it too hard. Remember, there’s a good chance you’ll be put off if it’s too hard but, equally, it should still be challenging enough to maintain motivation and acheive physical results. Set yourself small goals to achieve each session or each week.
4. Keep in mind the personal value of exercise. You’re doing it because it’s good for your health, not because you have to. Do something which has a meaning and purpose.
5. Commit to a non-negotiable plan of action. Diarise your exercise routine and stick to it. Don’t argue with yourself over it and don’t make deals with yourself in order to get out of it.
6. Enlist the support of family and friends Speak to your family about why you’re exercising and the goal you want to achieve. If you have family pressures or time commitments preventing you from exercising, you are less likely to have the support you need. By talking to your family you’ll help them understand how important it is to you to reach your goal. Alternatively, rope them in and use your exercise time as time spent with the family. Long walks, kicking a ball around and trips to the pool are all great ways to get everyone involved.
7. Find distractions. Instead of running on a treadmill, try running outside. Listen to music. If you have one, use a video games console.
To read the full article, with references to the studies mentioned in this post click on this link http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/psychology-exercise-1