The Exercise Challenge
What makes sticking to an exercise routine so hard?
Posted April 8, 2013
What makes being a couch potato so tempting? While we all know the importance of regular exercise to keep our bodies healthy, doing nothing seems to come much easier to us. And we pay a price for that. According to economists, having a sedentary lifestyle costs twice the amount of lifetime external subsidies that smokers do whether in the form of sick leave, disability insurance, or group life insurance costs. A sedentary lifestyle can also mean a shorter lifespan and increased medical costs due to heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and depression. If all “couch potatoes” started exercising even modestly, the potential savings could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.
Despite exercise promotion campaigns such as the Let’s Move campaign sponsored by First Lady Michelle Obama, 78% of Americans do not exercise regularly and that statistic has shown little change over the past four decades. Though nobody disputes the importance of regular exercise, most people avoid exercise or, if they do make the attempt, fail to stick with ambitious exercise programs for long.
In a recent overview published in the Review of General Psychology, Dr. Seppo E. Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health explored the question of why people have trouble sticking to an exercise routine. As the author of four books and 70 journal articles on the social psychology of exercise and health, Dr. Iso-Ahola has spent decades exploring the hidden and not-so-hidden motivators underlying exercise and the reasons people having for exercising (or avoiding exercise as the case may be).
As he points out, people follow regular routines which become stronger and more automatic with repetition. They can go home, eat dinner, and watch television for hours at a time as part of a daily ritualized routine with little variation. In the case of exercise, the key to success is repetition. Since most people only exercise occasionally (if at all), exercise does not become a repeatable habit due to not occurring regularly enough for a habit to develop. Research shows that the mean “survival time” for exercise routines is about 5.62 weeks with less than 20% of people beginning exercise routines continuing past the five-week mark. The five-week barrier appears to be critical for developing a solid exercise habit.
Forming a strong habit depends on a stable environment that allows people to associate specific cues with exercise, including regular times and places where exercise can happen without interruptions. Having a consistent schedule of exercise and a place where that exercise can happen, whether health club, gymnasium, or pool, is important in making exercise a habit. There is also the problem of motivation since people tend not to see the immediate benefits of exercise. Short-term motivators like weight loss can also be discouraging considering the amount of exercise needed to burn away even a modest number of calories. When people fail to lose weight as quickly as they would like, the temptation to stop exercising becomes stronger.
During the first five weeks, staying motivated involves a conscious effort before exercise becomes an automatic habit. That means consciously setting aside the time to exercise and avoiding distractions that can interfere with that routine. Even when exercise becomes a habit, changes in routine or unexpected circumstances can disrupt that habit and you may be forced to start over again from scratch.
The essential problem, unfortunately, is that we really don’t want to exercise. Sitting quietly in front of a television is inherently more enjoyable than working out, no matter how much damage that sedentary life might cause. As Iso-Ahola points out, we are subconsciously opposed to the very idea of exercise and often follow what Daniel Kahneman refers to as the law of least effort. In other words, when presented with different ways of achieving a specific goal, we tend to pick the one that is least demanding. Making a cognitive and physical effort to achieve something with no immediate perceived benefit takes a lot of mental determination, especially at first.
It also means that we tend to look of easy “outs” to avoid doing exercise whenever we can. Is the weather bad? Feeling a cold coming on? Is there something you really want to watch on television tonight? All of these excuses seem valid if it means getting out of doing something difficult or tiring. This leads to the familiar approach-avoidance conflict we have when faced with a challenge.
According to Kurt Lewin, one of the fathers of modern social psychology, approaching a task with both positive and negative aspects becomes harder as decision time draws closer and we start focusing on the negative aspects. Our determination to go to the gym quickly fades as the scheduled time draws closer and we have to force ourselves to get ready (I certainly do). Though it gets easier once the process becomes automatic, those first five weeks can be particularly brutal and we find ourselves struggling to remember all the positive goals that inspired us to exercise in the first place.
Another factor that leads to successful exercise is self-efficacy or how we view our ability to reach goals. Since exercise involves monitoring ourselves to stick to goals and avoid “burnout”, it’s important to have confidence in our ability to reach those goals. Lack of confidence leads to self-sabotage but continued success at exercising helps build up confidence. Friends and personal trainers can help this along by praising our efforts and making complimentary remarks about how our physical appearance and stamina have improved.
Sticking to an exercise routine all comes down to self-control. Going to a gym to exercise means passing up short-term rewards for something that will only reward you in the long run. Staying home to watch television, surf the Internet or watch a movie are always going to be temptations that have to be avoided. Even when you make it to the gym and start exercising, there is still the problem of regulating yourself and sticking to the regular exercise routine. The urge to cheat by cutting your session short or otherwise put in less effort is always going to be there as well. Occasional exercisers are especially vulnerable to this whenever they are feeling tired, depressed, or simply not in the mood.
Self-sabotage is always a major stumbling block on the road to fitness. According to Iso-Ahola and his colleagues, motivational cues can often help reinforce an exerciser’s determination through reminders of why exercise is so important. Research has even shown that simply having people write down what exercise means to them can increase exercise frequency, at least temporarily.
Along with coming up with reasons for exercise, you have to defuse the various reasons people use to avoid exercise. Opinion surveys show “lack of time” as being the most popular reason for not exercising though the time commitment involved is far less than the average number of hours most people spend watching television. While people insist that they are too busy to exercise, they rarely consider the time they waste on non-productive activities that are more appealing. This is especially true in the early weeks before an exercise routine becomes automatic.
So how can people be encouraged to exercise more? Unfortunately, mass media campaigns tend not to be that effective since television and radio ads are often lost in the overall “noise” among all the other public service messages we are subjected to each day. Another problem is that people often view exercising as a chore that cuts into leisure time which could be spent in more enjoyable ways. Sticking to an exercise routine means accepting it as necessary, along with brushing your teeth or eating. By recognizing that exercise provides real rewards and only takes up a small amount of your total leisure time, regular exercisers learn to see it as a part of a normal routine.
Unfortunately, the law of least effort can be seductive, especially since sitting in front of the television is so rewarding . Overcoming that takes determination and, often enough, a medical crisis to make people change their leisure habits (it did in my case). Getting past the self-sabotage that comes from the conscious and not-so-conscious desire to “take it easy” is always going to be hard, especially for people who are just starting out. That means resisting temptations and the instant gratification that comes from doing what you want to do instead of what you should be doing.
According to Seppo Iso-Ahola, exercisers and non-exercisers are very different in terms of the emotions they associate with regular exercise. Along with seeing exercise as unpleasant, non-exercisers also deal with the guilt they experience whenever they are reminded of their need to become physically fit. Even seeing a jogger running through a neighbourhood can trigger different emotions in exercisers and non-exercisers depending on their ideas about exercise. Becoming a successful exerciser means working through those negative emotions and making exercise an unconscious habit.
Though sticking with an exercise routine is extremely hard, it certainly isn’t impossible since 22% of the U.S. population is able to do it on a regular basis. Conscious determination is needed to overcome the non-conscious self-sabotage that keeps you from sticking to the exercise plan. People who know they “should” exercise but still avoiding being active often solve this dilemma by rationalizing the problem away instead of changing unhealthy habits. Turning exercise into a regular habit and avoiding the mental pitfalls that keep you from following through is an important step for a healthier future.