6 Questions You Need to Answer to Overcome Exercise Barriers

Part 1: Everything you should know for when it's hard to act on your intentions.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

Despite our best intentions, we can struggle to be physically active. For every one of us who has no intention to exercise, there are two of us who want to exercise and don't1. We purchase gym memberships expecting to exercise more often than we actually do2. This means that lack of a positive intention does not explain why a large percent of us are not active.

There is a reason why you struggle to act on your good intentions. I want to teach you how to recognize where the issue lies and then understand what is influencing your behavior. If you are the kind of person who struggles to start or struggles to stay consistent with exercise, the concept of a “behavior change system” is vital for you to understand. This “behavior change system” describes the determinants of behavior and the sources of influence over these determinants.

Determinants of Behavior and Sources of Influence

Motivation, opportunity, and capability are the three determinants of behavior. If you are motivated to do something, have the opportunity to do it, and the skill set to do it, you will do the behavior3.

In my health behavior change class, I give this example. Imagine that you wanted to go for a bike ride (motivation), knew how to ride a bike (capability), but did not have a bike (opportunity). Will you go for a ride? Imagine that you wanted to go for a bike ride, had a bike, but did not know how to ride it. Will you go for a ride?

Each of these determinants are worth discussing to better understand your system. Capability refers to the psychological and physical capacity to do the behavior.

Opportunity describes all the factors that prompt or make behavior easier. Motivation is all the brain processes that influence behavior.

Capability has two subcomponents, the physical and psychological. Physical describes actual physical capabilities whereas the psychological deals more with confidence or knowledge to perform a specific behavior.

Opportunity relates to availability and resources. It also refers to prompts. Motivation also has two components; reflective and automatic. Reflective deals with goal setting, decision making, and planning. The automatic component deals with habit, identity, impulses, and emotions. These are the determinants of behavior3.

Sources of Influence

For physical activity (and health behaviors in general) I propose the use of three relevant areas of influence. They include the individual level, the relationship level, and the environment level.

These levels respectfully represent cognitions, social networks, and the structural environment. The environment is the physical structure you live in. It includes your home, work, school, and neighborhood. The environment influences factors such as availability and accessibility.

Any change effort you undertake should focus on all levels of influence.

The Behavior System

Two things come to mind that are necessary to understand the importance of the behavior change system. The first is that good intentions cannot overcome a bad system.

If you have an intention to go for a walk but do not have access to aesthetically pleasing trails (environment-opportunity), no one to walk with (prompt-relationship), or are more motivated to watch television (individual-automatic) your good intention will not translate to action.

The other is this: systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get. If we have information on your system, we can predict what you will do. To increase the odds of a behavior happening we do not simply need to change ourselves, we need to change our system.

If you want to be active but don’t follow through on it, examine what the issue was (capability, opportunity, motivation) and what influenced that determinant (cognitions, social networks, or the environment). Where the issue lies reflects a weak point in your system that needs to be addressed. People with weak points in their system will experience more barriers which will make them more likely to disengage from physical activity.

Using the System

Imagine this scenario and then use the following questions to identify where your issue may be. Let’s say I set the intention of walking 10,000 steps each day this week. At the end of the week, I did not meet my good intention. Why did this happen?

  1. The task was too hard, I was not fit enough to do it (skills)
  2. Despite having the ability, I lacked confidence that I could achieve the goal (confidence)
  3. I did not have the opportunity to do the behavior (i.e., no good walking paths)
  4. I did not remember to do the behavior (prompt)
  5. I did not set a plan for when and where to do the behavior or I did not have a plan to overcome barriers (reflective motivation)
  6. I was more inclined to do something else (automatic motivation)

Then you ask yourself, what influenced why I did not do the behavior? Was it my thoughts, beliefs, cognitions, was it my social network, or did my structural environment fail to provide me with a prompt or an opportunity?

With favorable system conditions, you will be more likely to maintain a physical activity habit. Then with time and consistency along with valuation of the behavior, it is more likely to become integrated into your identity.

Behavior Change Techniques and Future Direction

Behavior change techniques are used to change the determinants of behavior. These techniques should either enhance motivation, opportunity, or capabilities or reduce the need for it.

If you were able to identify an issue based on my six questions you have already taken the first step to identify the techniques that you may need. Imagine that my issue was that I lacked confidence. There is a technique for that. Imagine that I forgot to act on my good intentions. There is a technique for that.

These behavior change techniques essentially correct the weak links in our system. The next post will address questions that should be asked and solutions that may be viable for the barrier the individual is experiencing.

**If you are keen on gaining access to customized behavior change techniques, follow the link here.


Rhodes, R.E., de Bruijn, G.J. (2013). How big is the physical activity intention-behaviour gap? A meta-analysis using the action control framework. British Journal of health Psychology. 18: 296-309.

Garon, J.D., Masse, A., Michaude, P.C. (2014). Health club attendance, expectations, and self-control. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 4926.

Michie, S., van Stralen, M.M., West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterizing and designing behavior change interventions. Implementation Science. 6. 42.