Exercise: Love it or Hate it

What makes a person love exercise and another absolutely hate it? Exercise psychologists haven’t discovered conclusively what makes some people faithfully work out everyday while the only exercise other people get is pressing the buttons of their television’s remote control.

However, psychologists like Dr. Christine Brooks of the Center for Research on Active Lifestyle Behavior at the University of Michigan are hot on the investigative trail.

Through in-depth interviews with hundreds of adults from all ages and occupations, Brooks discovered six interrelated components that influence, cause and drive people to exercise or not exercise. By understanding these factors, you might gain insight to why you are or aren’t motivated to exercise.

Socio-cultural environment
Your success at exercise or sports depends partly on whether your family was physically active or not. A mahjong queen mother and a TV addict father do not usually produce triathlete children.

If you hang around overweight sedentary friends, there is little social pressure for you to be anything else. The saying “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are” applies to fitness as well as other areas in life.

The cultural environment you grow up in also determines whether you choose to lead an active life or not. Some cultures place more importance on being fit and slim than other cultures.

Psychological state
Your psychological state represents how you think and feel about physical activity. It is influenced by three elements – attitude, needs and sense of competence.

Your attitude towards exercise is built partly from past experience. An uncle may have made a comment that women who lift weights are not feminine. You may have had a traumatic experience in P.E.. Your attitude will affect not only the kind of activity you choose to do in the future (if you decide to even do anything at all) but also where you will do that activity. If as a kid you felt ungraceful in ballet, an aerobics class will probably be the last kind of exercise you will choose. On the other hand, you may be willing to do aerobics by following a video in the “safety” of your own bedroom where no one will see you.

Your needs can range from self-esteem needs to biological needs. You might exercise for reasons like wanting to look good to rekindle romance in a troubled marriage or because you can’t finish 18 holes of golf without huffing and puffing.

No one likes to look stupid or clumsy so most people choose a physical activity that is equal to their sense of competence. It’s no wonder that walking is a popular form of exercise. It requires little skill and therefore little emotional anguish about feeling incompetent. This sense of competence is what stops many people from joining a gym. They are scared that they will be the only ones there who won’t know what they are doing.

Sense of commitment
Commitment is affected by attitude and need. The stronger the need, the stronger the commitment. People who do not have a strong commitment to exercise do not have a strong psychological need to work out, therefore, being fit is not that important to them. Until that need becomes strong enough, a person will usually not stick to exercising. I have known people who had a very wishy-washy attitude towards exercise become committed exercisers when they were “scared to death” by high cholesterol levels. The desire to avoid a heart attack or stroke was the strong need that made them commit to an active lifestyle.

Brooks identified three kinds of expectations -- opportunity, anguish and rewards.

Even if a person has a desire to exercise but does not have the opportunity of a convenient time or place, he or she will probably not be successful.

Brooks found that people are easily discouraged by any anguish (cost, pain, effort) they expect to experience if they exercise. If they expect to be intimidated by exercising in a gym, they will choose not to exercise there. If they expect to be sore all over, they will procrastinate about starting exercise. If they expect a sport to be too difficult to learn, they won’t even bother trying.

On the other hand, if people expect the rewards (weight loss, firm muscles, social approval) to outweigh the anguish, they start exercising. This is probably why consumers fall so easily for those TV infomercials. They promise “a flat stomach” (expected reward) in “just minutes a day” (not too much anguish).

Rewards received
These are the rewards actually received for exercising. They may or may not match your expectations. For example, you expect to lose weight by working out. After a month, you still haven’t lost any weight but you continue exercising anyway because you received the unexpected rewards of feeling good and sleeping better at night. If the expected rewards are unrealistic like expecting to get fit in a month when you have been sedentary for ten years, you will probably stop exercising because there is too large a gap between the actual reward and your expectation.

When expected rewards match the rewards received and the anguish factor was not too high, then your satisfaction will positively affect your psychological state and you will, most likely, continue exercising. However, mismatched expectations and rewards will probably deter you from exercising again in the future.

The “Enough is enough!” threshold
Psychologists say that you have to reach the point when you say to yourself, “Enough is enough!” before you will take action to exercise. What brings on this threshold? It may be a something like taking a painful look at your naked body, hearing a spouse’s comment about your growing waistline, having a close friend die of a heart attack, or your doctor’s advice to exercise. Health and fitness information can also trigger the same response. Whatever the reason, if you haven’t crossed that threshold yet, exercise is probably not on your list of priorities in life.

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