Use Your Self-Efficacy to Turn Mental into Physical Fitness

New research shows the benefits of training your mind as well as your body.

Posted Jul 10, 2018

The belief that you can succeed at a challenging task defines your level of self-efficacy. A long-standing concept in social psychology, high self-efficacy shows relationships to a myriad of positive outcomes. New research on the relationship between self-efficacy and quality of life perceptions of health headed by Anna Banik and colleagues (2018), of the Wroclaw (Poland) University of Social Sciences and Humanities, shows just how critical this belief in your ability to succeed can affect the way you view your body’s abilities.

Think about the last time you had to prepare for a challenging physical task. Perhaps you’re getting ready for a local 5K race to raise money for a local cause. You may also be preparing for an even greater challenge, such as a national marathon in Boston, New York, or the one upcoming in London. In addition to preparing your body for the competition, you will also need to prepare your mind, as suggested on this UK New Balance site. The steps outlined in this website indicate that psychology plays as important a role as nutrition and physical preparation.

Whether you’re trying to win or even just make it to the finish line, building up your exercise-related self-efficacy can be a key part of the process. Banik and her fellow researchers performed a meta-analysis in which they examined all the available evidence in the literature on the role of both general and exercise-specific self-efficacy in predicting health-related quality of life (HRQOL) among individuals with cardiovascular disease (CVD).

HRQOL is your perspective on your health in the broadest sense of physical, mental, and social functioning. According to Banik et al., “improving HRQOL among people with CVD is one of the critical goals for any treatment, rehabilitation, and intervention efforts” (p. 296). You can imagine that in terms of a physical challenge, having heart disease can potentially erode your quality of life. However, as the Polish researcher and her associates point out, self-efficacy is a “key modifiable personal resource” that can help “exercise control over one’s own functioning” (p. 296). In other words, if you perceive that you can control your health-related outcomes, you should feel better about your health and yourself in general.

There are a host of studies, as Banik et al. point out, suggesting that self-efficacy can help individuals with CVD manage their disease as well as reduce the depression that often accompanies chronic illness. Because exercise is such a central feature of treatment among people with CVD, the research team included exercise-specific measures of self-efficacy as part of their empirical assessment of the literature. These measures included the Exercise Self-Efficacy Scale, which asks individuals to rate their ability to exercise at various levels of intensity for 40 or more minutes without quitting for up to 8 weeks. Other specific self-efficacy measures examined beliefs about the ability to cope with CVD as well as with specific treatment regimens based on the individual's diagnosis.

The authors theorized that specific, and not global, self-efficacy should be more predictive of HRQOL based on the suggestion of previous researchers. As an example of overall or global self-efficacy, the authors used this scale from Schwarzer & Jerusalem (1995), in which people rate the extent to which each of the following statements are true:

  1. I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough.
  2. If someone opposes me, I can find the means and ways to get what I want.
  3. It is easy for me to stick to my aims and accomplish my goals.
  4. I am confident that I could deal efficiently with unexpected events
  5. Thanks to my resourcefulness, I know how to handle unforeseen situations.
  6. I can solve most problems if I invest the necessary effort.
  7. I can remain calm when facing difficulties because I can rely on my coping abilities.
  8. When I am confronted with a problem, I can usually find several solutions.
  9. If I am in trouble, I can usually think of a solution.
  10. I can usually handle whatever comes my way.

These questions illustrate what you can ask yourself when you're trying to feel that you can handle a challenge. However, the studies reviewed by Banik and her colleagues found that the strongest predictor of HRQOL was exercise-specific self-efficacy, supporting the idea that the best way to feel better about your health and abilities is to drill down into the nature of the task that you face. A global sense of optimism and confidence can definitely help, but it may not be enough to get you through those tough demands placed on your body when it’s put under stress.

As the authors note, all studies in the meta-analysis were correlational, so that it is not possible to determine the exact pathways of causality. In fact, though, they point out that there may be merits to viewing the findings as supporting the idea that the better you feel about your health in a global sense, the better you feel you can put your body to the test in an exercise context. In their words, “interventions improving HRQOL may be likely to enhance exercise self-efficacy and thus foster rehabilitation engagement” (p. 308).

Returning now to the original question of how best to prepare yourself for the physical challenges you set for yourself, whether you want to win or just finish a competition, there are clear implications from these studies of cardiac rehabilitation patients. The mental preparation you engage in should include identifying and then trying to maximize your self-efficacy.  How long will you need to be able to run or walk in order to make it to the finish line? Do you think you’re at that point yet? If not, find an amount of time or distance that you think can you comfortably complete. Start from there and then build gradually until you are able to accomplish your ultimate goal. Boosting your overall sense of optimism and control is also part of the picture, as is feeling good about your life in general.

Training your mind can ultimately become the key to training your body, allowing you to experience the fulfillment of meeting whatever challenges you set for yourself.

References

Banik, A., Schwarzer, R., Knoll, N., Czekierda, K., & Luszczynska, A. (2018). Self-efficacy and quality of life among people with cardiovascular diseases: A meta-analysis. Rehabilitation Psychology, 63(2), 295-312. doi:10.1037/rep0000199

Schwarzer, R., & Jerusalem, M. (1995). Generalized Self-Efficacy scale. In J. Weinman, S. Wright, & M. Johnston, Measures in health psychology: A user’s portfolio. Causal and control beliefs (pp. 35-37). Windsor, UK: NFER-NELSON.