With a large number of people across the world that are not meeting physical activity standards, the push for developing a consistent and successful intervention strategy is vital. However, it is very difficult in most cases to understand and potentially change individual motives and behaviours. It seems that in general, short term changes are achievable, but long term adherence to exercise is difficult to achieve. We set new years resolutions only to have them discarded by February. The problem lies in a fundamental difference between inspiration and motivation, the former of which is sold in abundance nowadays. Anyone with an Instagram account can attest to this. We scroll through our feeds with a false sense of inspiration after seeing someone's workout video, only finding ourselves glued to the couch a few moments later.
True motivation must come from within, but we must also be aware of the numerous variables affecting it. We are flawed creatures, who will always find excuses as to why we shouldn’t exercise. In part this is because of a cognitive bias we have called fundamental attribution bias, where we tend to blame a faulty environment for ourselves (eg. I don’t have access to a gym nearby) and at the same time attribute someone else's lack of exercise to the individual (eg. they are just lazy). The reality is a very complex interplay of different factors, all of which have an affect on our adherence to exercise. More importantly we have negatively changed our perceptions of physical activity as a means to improve ourselves, instead of finding things that we actually enjoy doing for it’s own sake. We can self improve ourselves to death doing something we don’t want to do just because we want to show everyone else were on board with the latest trend.
To cope with this we must first understand the barriers surrounding us, and approach the case in a personalized way that creates meaning and autonomy. Understanding barriers and motives of exercise is complex and it is challenging to bridge the gap between intention and behaviour. However, research has shown self-determination theory (SDT) to be an effective model for creating positive motivation to exercise. SDT works on the premise that we have three basic needs: Autonomy, Competence, & Relatedness.
Having these three needs met are a basic requirement for people to feel happy, in control, and self-determined. When individuals cultivate autonomy, relatedness, and competence it creates adherence to physical activity. The confidence experienced by choosing ways to be active is important to motivation and whenever an individual feels competent in their specific domain, the more likely they are to demonstrate that competence, and thus are motivated to be active. This confidence can be attained by a variety of ways including experiencing mastery, or through social interaction. What this means is that we should focus on enjoyment first and then on adherence. Research shows that Individuals who are physically active for a long period of time seem to prioritize enjoyment and revitalization more than exercising for appearance and weight management. By providing a more personalized approach, such as tuning in to your likes and dislikes and creating an exercise plan based from that, you can start to enjoy the actual activity, become more confident, and thus likely to continue.
"We can self improve ourselves to death doing something we don’t want to do just because we want to show everyone else were on board with the latest trend."
So instead of doing a particular exercise or workout routine just because you saw it online, do some introspective work into what sorts of activities you like doing. This way you will have the decision develop more organically (autonomy) and thus more likely to stick with it. With this you gain a lot of confidence because you feel empowered and become better and better at the specific thing you’re working on (competence). This can go even further when we join a community of like minded people and feel like we belong (relatedness). Remember, things take time and habits are slowly formed through patience. But here are a few tips to help get you started:
1. Goal set (The more concrete the better)
Formulate intentions and goals as specific as possible. Look at the 4 W's: What, when, with whom, and why. Make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Action oriented, Realistic, Time bound.
eg. "I will run 2-3 times a week after I get back from work”
2. Anticipate barriers and find solutions
Think about any barriers that may occur and come up with solutions tailored to you
eg. "If I am too busy to run any of the the 3 days I will make up for it on the weekend"
eg. Say you will run 3 times a week Instead of saying I will run Monday, Wednesday, Friday. What happens if you’re busy Friday?
3. Let the environment help you
Remove stimuli that provoke sedentary behavior and replace them with stimuli that provide the opportunity for physical activity
eg. Putting your running shoes on the couch or right in front of your door as to remind you of your goal
eg. technology can be useful if used properly. Set reminders for yourself on your phone to get active. There are tons of apps for this!
4. There is always time
a) It's more a question of managing your priorities
b) Think about combining some of the activities in your day, which can save you alot of time
eg. a) List the top 5 things that are most important in achieving your goal. Then list the top 5 things you are currently doing in pursuit of that goal. Do you see any mismatches? If yes, maybe it is time to move one of these domains up a priority
eg. b) Parking your car 10 minutes away from your work in order to get some walking in, or bringing some of your running stuff with you and run on your break.
5. Support the three basic needs: Autonomy, belonging/relatedness, competence
Your goals should involve the feeling of autonomy, in that you made the choice yourself what it is that you enjoy, and how you will pursue your goals. Find something you value, and notice how you are related to it. The more related and have a feeling of belonging, the more likely we are to pursue that value. This also includes finding someone to do physical activity with if being social is something you value. With this, you fill find yourself feeling more and more competent.