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The three components of motivation affect exercise adherence

This is an excerpt from Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, Third Edition by Bruce Abernethy, Vaughan Kippers, Stephanie Hanrahan, Marcus Pandy, Ali McManus, and Laurel Mackinnon.


Examine changes and adaptations in human movement with
Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, Third Edition.

The purpose of this chapter is to examine the reciprocal links between psychology and exercise—namely, the effects of psychological functions, such as motivation, on exercise—and the effects of exercise on psychological factors such as feelings of well-being, mood states, and mental performance.

Effects of Psychological Factors on Exercise

The three components of motivation—direction, intensity, and persistence—mentioned in chapter 19 in relation to sport apply to exercise motivation as well. Direction clearly relates to whether an individual chooses the direction of the gym or the couch, the stairs or the elevator, or the pool or the bath. Once the direction of exercise has been chosen, intensity and persistence become important. For example, as a New Year’s resolution two individuals may have both decided to join a gym. They have both chosen the direction of exercise. During their first day at the gym, one rides the bicycle for 30 min, tries the stepper and the rowing machine, completes multiple sets on the different weights available, and finishes off with an aerobics class. The other individual begins with just a few minutes on the bicycle and then completes just one set of each of the different weights exercises using light weights. The first person in this example exhibits high intensity and the second person exhibits low intensity. If we stop at this point in the example, you may conclude that the first person is more motivated than the second. Your opinion may change when the third component of motivation—persistence—is considered. Two days later the first individual is home in bed, too sore to move (thinking that exercise is painful and should be avoided whenever possible). The second individual, however, is once again at the gym adding a couple of minutes to his time on the bicycle and sticking to his light-weights workout.

Exercise Participation Motivation

Exercise participation motivation refers primarily to the direction component of motivation. Exercise participation motivation is the initiation of exercise. A variety of factors influence whether individuals initiate an exercise program.

Knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about exercise influence motivation toward exercise participation. Individuals who understand the importance and value of regular exercise are more likely to initiate an exercise program than those who do not. Similarly, if people have positive attitudes about the value and importance of regular exercise they will have greater motivation to participate in exercise than will people with negative attitudes.

Valuing the importance of exercise, however, is not the only determinant of exercise participation. Beliefs about ourselves influence motivation as well. Even if individuals understand that exercise is important, they will be unlikely to begin an exercise program if they believe that they cannot succeed at it. If they believe that the exercise program is too difficult or that it requires more fitness, strength, coordination, or time than they have, it is doubtful that they will join the program. This confidence in one’s ability to succeed at an exercise program is called exercise self-efficacy. It is logical that self-efficacy would influence behaviour. How likely would people be to do something they were convinced they could not do, particularly if they had to pay to do it? How likely would they be to invest any energy in pursuing that activity? Most people in this situation would not attempt the activity. People who have such feelings are described as having low self-efficacy. As self-efficacy, or one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed at a particular task, increases, so does the likelihood of undertaking that task.

How can we enhance exercise participation motivation? Educating people about the importance and value of exercise can be a valuable first step because individuals who understand the merit of exercise are more likely to adopt an exercise program. Unfortunately, imparting knowledge is not enough. A lot of us do things that we know are not good for us and, similarly, do not do things that we know are good for us. Enhancing the exercise self-efficacy of individuals will increase their motivation. Demonstrating how individuals can control their own activity is useful. Some people have low self-efficacy about exercise because they believe that they are too unfit to begin exercising. They may equate exercise with young, thin, Lycra-clad gym enthusiasts whom they see in the media. Programs that emphasise choice of activities, illustrate exercisers similar in age and fitness level to the potential exercisers, and reveal that exercising can be enjoyable may increase exercise participation motivation. Exercise programs that begin with activities that the individuals already know they are capable of doing, such as walking and climbing stairs, may also increase self-efficacy and thereby increase motivation. Imagery may also help individuals enhance their self-efficacy beliefs (see “Imagery, Exercise, and Self-Efficacy”).

Exercise Adherence Motivation

Although many people get motivated to begin an exercise program, many of the people who begin fail to continue. Approximately 50% of individuals who begin a regular physical-activity program drop out within the first 6 mo. These people had exercise participation motivation, but they lack exercise adherence motivation, the persistence component of motivation.

Biological, psychological, sensory, and situational factors all interact to influence exercise adherence. Biologically, body composition, aerobic fitness, and the presence of disease influence adherence. Unfortunately, it is usually the people who could gain the most from exercise who are the least likely to adhere. Overweight or obese, unfit, or chronically ill people are less likely to adhere to an exercise program than are thinner, fitter, and healthier people.

As is the case with exercise participation motivation, attitudes and beliefs influence exercise adherence motivation. Attitudes and beliefs about the importance of exercise play a role in adherence, but so too do individuals’ expectations about the effects that exercise is having on them personally. For example, if individuals believe that major changes in fitness and body composition should occur after 6 wk of regular exercise and they do not perceive major improvement in their own bodies after 6 wk, they may believe that exercise does not do what it should and therefore quit. Even though it is unrealistic to believe that 6 wk of exercise can make up for 6 yr of inactivity, it is individuals’ beliefs, not reality, that influence behaviour. Therefore, when introducing newcomers to exercise it is important that they have realistic expectations about the time and effort required and the anticipated effects of the proposed program.

In addition to attitudes and beliefs, other psychological factors influence exercise adherence motivation. Extroverts (people who are social and outgoing) tend to adhere to exercise programs better than do introverts. Exercise programs that are executed in the presence of other people are probably more comfortable for extroverts than for introverts. Extroverts tend to enjoy the interaction with class members and exercise partners, possibly encouraging their adherence. Introverts, on the other hand, may adhere better to individual, home-based exercise programs. The bulk of the research on exercise adherence has involved programs that take place on site at fitness facilities with other people. This setting may have led to the conclusion that extroverts are better adherers than introverts. If the research had been done on independent, home-based exercise programs, it might have been found that introverts were better adherers. Clearly efforts need to be made to match the social environment of the exercise program to the personality of the exerciser.

Individuals with high levels of self-motivation are more likely to adhere to exercise programs than are individuals with low levels of self-motivation. It is logical that highly self-motivated people have better adherence rates. The challenge is to help those individuals with low levels of self-motivation. One of the most effective methods of helping these individuals is to encourage their involvement in the goal-setting process.

Goal Setting

Setting goals can help enhance motivation for a number of reasons. Goal setting addresses all three components of motivation. Goals give direction by providing a target. Intensity and effort also can be enhanced because goals provide reasons for participating in the activity. We are all more likely to put in effort when we feel there is a reason for doing so. If individuals are given two jobs to do at work, one that has a particular target and objective and one that seems vague and purposeless, into which job are they more likely to put their effort? Having goals helps focus attention and effort. In addition, goals can augment persistence by fostering new strategies. If individuals have a goal to which they are committed and initial tactics appear unsuccessful, they will search for alternative strategies to achieve their aim. If the goal had not been set in the first place, instead of persisting with different plans of action, they would likely give up.

Goals are also beneficial because they reflect improvement. Too often people make short-term comparisons regarding their strength, fitness, flexibility, or weight. Because the positive effects of exercise take time to emerge, improvements being made are often not noticed when people use a short timeframe for comparison. If a goal is achieved, evidence of improvement exists.

Goal setting involves a number of steps:

  • setting the goal,
  • setting a target date by which to achieve the goal,
  • determining strategies to achieve the goal, and
  • evaluating the goal on a regular basis.

If a target date is not set (e.g., “One of these days I’ll ride the exercise bike continuously for an hour”), the goal is really just a dream. For this idea to be a goal, the individual needs to set a specific date by which to achieve the behaviour. Goal setting usually involves both long-term and short-term goals. The long-term goal provides direction; the short-term goals provide the increase in intensity and effort. People often err by setting only long-term goals. They begin to work toward achieving the goal, but success seems so far away that they give up before they get there. If someone had decided to ride a bike for 1 h and was currently having trouble lasting 10 min, 1 h would seem virtually impossible. Achieving short-term goals along the way to the long-term goal boosts confidence and motivation because it is obvious that the effort is worthwhile because improvement is being made. Target dates are set for each short-term goal in a progressive order until the long-term goal is achieved. This pattern of goal setting can be considered as a staircase, where each short-term goal is a step on the way to the long-term goal (see figure 20.1).

For goals to be effective, however, they need to be properly set. Goals can be considered to be good if they meet certain criteria (table 20.1). Goals need to be challenging but realistic. If goals are not challenging, they probably are not requiring any real change in behaviour and therefore will have little effect. However, if goals are so challenging that they are unrealistic, people are setting themselves up for failure. Continued failure leads to lowered confidence and less motivation.

Goals also need to be specific and measurable. Saying “I want to be fitter” or “My goal is to be stronger” does not provide any way of knowing when success has been achieved. What is “fitter”? How strong is “stronger”? There needs to be some way of knowing whether the goal has been achieved when the target date arrives. The easiest way of making goals specific is to make goals numerical. Numbers can easily be used to quantify time spent exercising, distance travelled, repetitions accomplished, weight lifted, or exercise sessions attended.

In addition to being specific and measurable, goals need to be positive. If an exerciser makes it her goal not to recline and rest during the abdominals section of her aerobics class, she will be thinking about reclining and resting. If instead she makes it her goal to complete first 1 min and then 2 min of the abdominal exercises, she will be thinking about doing the exercises, thus increasing her chances of doing them. If we tell you not to think about pink elephants, what is the first thing you think about? Similarly, if you set a goal of not letting your back arch off the bench when you do bench presses, you will be thinking about your back arching. When you think about your back arching, your brain may be sending messages to the muscles that make your back arch (just like in the psychoneuromuscular theory of imagery discussed in chapter 19). By making your goal “not arching,” you may actually be increasing the likelihood of arching your back. A goal of keeping your back pushed flat against the bench would be much more effective. Goals should stipulate the desired behaviour. Positively worded goals help you think about, plan for, and prepare to do what it is you want to do.


Read more from Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, Third Edition by Bruce Abernethy, Vaughan Kippers, Stephanie Hanrahan, Marcus Pandy, Ali McManus, and Laurel Mackinnon.



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