Orientations, Styles, and Exercise Adherence
Most authors in the health and exercise psychology literature do not differentiate between personality traits and other personal characteristics called orientations and styles (terms that are used interchangeably), but there are stark differences between the two. Personality traits are permanent, stable across situations, and partly a reflection of one’s genetic predisposition, and therefore they are not subject to change. Orientations and styles, on the other hand, reflect common attitudes or a person’s tendency to think or act in a predictable manner. The concepts of attributional style, coping style, and win orientation reflect predictable and persistent ways of thinking and acting under certain conditions. If, for instance, a person who demonstrates success or competence has an internal attributional style, the typical way the person explains success may be internal. That is, she may typically attribute the cause of her success as due to high effort or excellent skills, both internal explanations. Not taking responsibility for success or failure and perceiving the cause as something beyond the person’s control reflects an external attributional style, at least for that particular situation (e.g., maintaining high fitness, improving performance on a given task, gaining excessive weight).
Orientations and styles also predict how people perceive the importance of a healthy lifestyle and to what they attribute their good or poor health. An internal disposition could reflect taking responsibility for one’s excessive weight or poor fitness as due to poor dietary choices, excessive food intake, and lack of physical activity. Someone with an external disposition will be more likely to attribute weight gain to genetics or similarity to other family members, to not acknowledge there is a weight problem, or to believe that weight gain and consequent diseases (e.g., type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease) are normal and part of the aging process. Other types of orientations and styles related to health behavior include self-control, self-awareness, and the interchangeable concepts of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Self-control refers to the extent to which a person voluntarily and consciously creates, carries out, and maintains thoughts, emotions, and behaviors toward reaching desirable goals, even after encountering obstacles (Rosenbaum, 1990). Self-control behaviors are regulated by deliberate cognitive processes that are under the person’s voluntary control. A good example of self-control in exercise settings is time management. Perhaps the primary reason people offer for not exercising is not having enough time (Sternfeld et al., 2009). People with high self-control plan their day and set aside time (i.e., day of the week, hour of the day, length of time) devoted to maintaining an exercise routine.
Self-control also means that the activity itself may be planned. For example, perhaps an exerciser who prefers the company of a friend during a workout plans to meet his friend at the exercise facility. Upon entering the facility, the individual has preplanned an hour devoted to various tasks that compose the exercise workout; specific routines are planned and carried out for the duration of the session, from entering to exiting the facility. The type of aerobic and resistance training may also be predetermined and executed in attempting to reach challenging goals. Presumably, the excuse of not having enough time now becomes having more time to do other things thanks to increased energy and vigor as a function of the workout. People with a high self-control orientation are more capable of carrying out preperformance and performance routines compared with their counterparts with low self-control (Faulkner et al., 2006). People with high self-control are schedule keepers and rarely waste time.
An important situational factor in developing an exercise habit is scheduling one’s exercise sessions during the week. This requires good time management skills. Rather than saying, “I’ll exercise when I get the time,” restate that view with, “I will exercise at x times on the following days.” A minimum of three times a week of intense exercise that expands one’s fitness capacity and has a training effect (e.g., increased heart rate, increased muscular strength) is needed. However, finding opportunities to become physically active during the day (e.g., taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking up or down the escalator, taking an evening or lunchtime walk) is also helpful for burning calories and managing weight.
The pioneer writer and researcher in the literature on learned resourcefulness is Dr. Michael Rosenbaum (1990). He defined learned resourcefulness as “an acquired repertoire of behavioral and cognitive skills with which the person is able to regulate internal events such as emotions and cognitions that might otherwise interfere with the smooth execution of a target behavior” (p. xiv). High scorers on Rosenbaum’s Self-Report Scale (Rosenbaum, 1990) are better able to
• tolerate physical discomfort,
• cope effectively with stress,
• succeed in weight-reduction programs,
• prevent or overcome feelings of helplessness,
• comply with medical and other health-related regimens,
• establish and maintain a relatively healthy lifestyle, and
• delay immediate gratification (e.g., binge eating) and understand the value of delayed gratification (e.g., exercising takes time, but the person receives more energy, better health, and improved performance quality).
In general, learned resourcefulness is particularly important in controlling negative thoughts and emotions while engendering desirable cognitive processes such as positive self-talk, optimism, self-motivation, and positive mood states. People high in learned resourcefulness are more confident; more likely to adopt an active lifestyle, including regular exercise; and less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors (e.g., smoking, taking extreme risks). It is important to note that learned resourcefulness is not viewed as a personality trait. Instead, it is an orientation—a way of thinking that can be influenced through experience, counseling, and situational conditions.
Mental toughness is a disposition that represents the ability to reach and sustain high performance under pressure by expanding one’s physical, mental, and emotional capacity (Connaughton, Hanton, and Jones, 2010). Mental toughness is learned, not inherited; it’s an orientation. One common but false view of many athletes and coaches is that we are born with the right competitive instincts, and people who cannot handle failure lack the genetic predisposition to be mentally tough. The belief in a mental toughness gene is tempting because it absolves the person of taking responsibility for failure. However, the reality is that mental toughness can be taught, improved, and mastered. Exercisers need mental toughness to acknowledge their poor health and the need for physical activity, to withstand the challenges of physical exertion, to overcome physical fatigue, to continue to see the benefits of an exercise program, and to maintain exercise participation as a lifelong habit.
Mentally tough people are self-motivated and self-directed (their energy comes from internal sources; it is not forced from the outside); positive but realistic about handling adversity; in control of their emotions, especially in response to frustration and disappointment; and calm and relaxed under fire (rather than avoiding pressure, they are challenged by it). Mental toughness is also characterized by high energy, physical and mental readiness for action, a strong desire to succeed, relentlessness in the pursuit of challenging goals, superb concentration skills, self-confidence in the ability to perform well, and taking full responsibility for one’s actions.
Think of self-awareness as the willingness to self-reflect, to engage introspectively, and to look at oneself through the eyes of others. This is not always easy to do, but others give us signals about their expectations and evaluations of us all the time, if we just take a good look. People react to us one way if they want our friendship and we have their respect. They react to us in a completely different way if they reject or disrespect us for whatever justified or unjustified reasons.
Self-awareness is an important component of health behavior because the ability to look inside and to be cognizant of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors allows us to initiate steps for desirable change. If, for instance, we look in the mirror and see a person who is out of shape, overweight, and even unattractive, we can then begin the process of determining the reasons for our low energy, labored breathing, and general discomfort. Self-aware people also become more aware of the short-term costs and long-term consequences of their bad habits. They do not ignore their poor health and the negative habits that cause their current health status. This is why they are more likely to embrace support and opportunity to make lifelong changes that improve their health and happiness. They refuse to remain stuck in a self-destructive lifestyle. The challenges of self-awareness are addressed by Loehr and Schwartz (2003), who paraphrase John 32:8 from the Bible: “If the truth is to set us free, facing it cannot be a one-time event. Rather, it must become a practice. Like all of our ‘muscles,’ self-awareness withers from disuse and deepens when we push past our resistance to see more of the truth” (p. 163).
Self-awareness, then, is an orientation. We differ in our willingness to become introspective about who we are and what we need to do to become better. As Loehr and Schwartz (2003) contend, “We must persistently shed light on those aspects of ourselves that we prefer not to see in order to build our mental, emotional and spiritual capacity” (p. 163). The authors also agree, however, that self-awareness can be self-defeating and overwhelming, bringing out negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions if it is absorbed in too big a dose. The right amount and frequency of self-awareness provides sufficient information to keep us on track and to be used as a source of information about what we need to become healthier and happier. As the authors conclude, “Facing the most difficult truths in our lives is challenging but also liberating” (p. 163).
Confidence is a person’s general feeling, perception, or belief that she has the capability to be successful in performing a skill and meeting task demands. Self-efficacy combines confidence with self-expectations. Self-efficacy, often associated and used interchangeably with self-confidence, is defined by Feltz and Lirgg (2001) as “the belief one has in being able to execute a specific task successfully . . .
to obtain a certain outcome” (p. 340). They further write, “Self-efficacy beliefs are not judgments about one’s skills, objectively speaking, but rather are judgments of what one can accomplish with those skills” (p. 340). Thus, self-efficacy beliefs reflect a person’s feelings not about what she can do but rather about what she has already done.
Self-efficacy is enormously important in an exercise setting and for changing and adhering to desirable, healthy behaviors. For example, people who experience self-doubt about their ability to join a fitness class and perform at least most of the exercises will be more likely to stop attending the class and either try some other form of exercise or return to their sedentary lifestyle. It is against human nature to continue participating in an activity in which we perceive our performance as incompetent or we fail to meet self-expectations or experience improved exercise performance and outcomes (e.g., better fitness). Therefore, building self-efficacy in an exercise setting bolsters the exercisers’ perception that they are exercising properly, using correct technique, and improving performance. With respect to general health, clients will feel that following a certain set of routines will result or has resulted in superior health-related outcomes (e.g., more energy, positive mood, favorable results from medical tests). The objective of every worker in the health care industry, including fitness and nutrition coaches, is to provide instruction and positive feedback to build the person’s self-efficacy about maintaining healthy habits.
Researchers have examined the link between self-efficacy and exercise behavior. Perhaps not surprising is the finding that as a person becomes more committed to an exercise habit, his self-efficacy improves. Self-efficacy is relatively low in the early stages of exercise, when a person is just beginning to develop an exercise routine or starting to make exercise a habit, and it increases dramatically as the person inserts exercise among his daily rituals. What is unknown is whether self-efficacy causes a person to adopt exercise as a lifestyle ritual or whether continued exercise increases self-efficacy. No doubt the two processes interact and self-efficacy is both the cause and the outcome of maintaining a regular exercise habit (Feltz and Lirgg, 2001; O’Leary, 1985).