Written by Anthony Pinto Da Costa, BA Kin, MScPT
As the fields of exercise psychology and physical rehabilitation continue to develop, one of the biggest challenges researchers and clinicians persistently face is convincing people to adhere to physical activity and exercise. For the most part, the results of this collective effort have been frustrating, given that physical inactivity has exceeded “epidemic proportions” in Canada (Janssen, 2012). Many experts find this to be a troubling situation, as the unequivocal benefits of physical activity have been available for over 60 years, yet adherence has lagged behind in relation to the evidence (Kohl, 2012).
This predicament leaves all of us scratching our heads in confusion, and it begs the question: Why is exercise and physical activity a ‘best buy’ but such a ‘tough sell’? As rational human beings, shouldn’t we be able to weigh the pros and cons of being inactive versus being active, and then act accordingly? Or are there other possible drivers and motivators at play here that influence peoples’ decision to adhere to persistent activity? Let’s explore this a little deeper.
News Flash: When it comes to Exercise, we are not Rational Decision Makers
I know… it’s a tough pill to swallow, but hear me out here.
The vast majority of exercise psychology research is primarily focused on developing theories that are deeply rooted in human cognition. As such, they all rely on the fundamental assumption that in making behavioural decisions (such as exercising), humans collect and analyze the relevant information that is available to them, rationally weigh the pros and cons, and make complicated probabilistic predictions about the future consequences of their actions (Ekkekakis & Dafermos, 2012). Although we all like to think of ourselves as consistently rational beings, we know for a fact that when it comes to exercise adherence, it’s not always the case.
And not to add insult to injury here but… we just saw herds of people stockpile toilet paper into their shopping carts as a response to an infectious disease outbreak… so again, we’re not always the most rational creatures.
Anyway, back to the topic…
As healthcare practitioners, we’re taught in school that if we want to get our clients to adhere to exercise, we need to tap into our patients’ minds by providing them with information about the health benefits of an active lifestyle, while also dosing them with the appropriate amount and type of exercise. However, evidence indicates that interventions like these, which are based on education and modifications of cognitive appraisals, have been shown to be minimally effective (Ekkekakis et al. 2011). In other words, we can’t just talk our clients into adopting an active lifestyle by telling them exercise improves overall health and wellbeing; they need to want to engage in it in order for it to stick.
Given that, the question then becomes: What makes us want to adhere to exercise?
Emotion: A Powerful Motivator of Behavior
A major limitation of the present generation of exercise psychology research is that it largely discounts the role of affect (i.e., emotion) as a motivating force in human behaviour. As the previous section showed us, the cognitive theories (although they play their role) almost paint us out to be computer processors of information and data that are devoid of any raw human emotion. Simon (1983) stated that, “in order to have anything like a complete theory of human rationality, we have to understand what role emotion plays in it.” That being said, we must absolutely consider our affectivity as a mediator for our decision to adhere to an active lifestyle.
More specifically, in the realm of human emotion and its relation to exercise adherence, it’s important to hone in on one emotion we all know very well: Pleasure.
Pleasure is a massive motivator of behaviour. Often times, we do something simply because we enjoy it, and on the other hand, don’t do something simply because we don’t enjoy it. This phenomenon is called psychological or motivational hedonism, which can be described as human behaviour that is motivated by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of displeasure.
Although it’s tough for us avid exercisers to understand, we need to realize that a large portion of the general population does not find any pleasure, enjoyment, or fun in exercise, and there may actually be a plausible evolutionary reason for this!
The Physical Effort-Pleasure Relationship
If we go back to our ancestral hunter-gatherer days, we can postulate that conserving energy in an unstable and unpredictable environment was crucial for our survival. At any moment of the day we would have to trigger our fight our flight response to react to threatening stimuli (e.g., a sabre-tooth tiger) very quickly in order to make it through the day. Given that, it would make sense that engaging in any type of intense physical exertion would deplete our stores of energy, and thus make us an easy target for a hungry predator. Furthermore, if we aren’t able to live, we aren’t able to enjoy the pleasures and rewards of human life such as finding mates, raising viable children, and eating delicious foods.
Nonetheless, that does not mean that any type of physical activity was considered unpleasant; it just means that exerting yourself to the point where you meet or exceed your lactate threshold (i.e., “feeling the burn”) would put you at a survival disadvantage, and thus would be perceived as a non-pleasurable experience. From this, we can theorize that getting people to exercise below the point where they “feel the burn” should improve the emotional experience and pleasure of exercise, leading to more frequent participation.
This idea that exercise must be relatively easy and pleasant in order to be continued is not a new one, as many experts have suggested it for years:
- Robert Roberts (what a name, eh?), a director of a YMCA in Boston in the late 1800s, suggested that all exercises should be “safe, short, easy, beneficial, and pleasing” in order to keep exercisers coming back (Leonard, 1915).
- Dishman et al. (1985) stated that, “feelings of enjoyment and well-being seem to be stronger motives for continued [exercise] participation.”
- The Healthy People 2010 programme wrote that, “each person should recognize that starting out slowly with an activity that is enjoyable [is] central to the adoption and maintenance of physical activity behaviour.”
- And lastly, Biddle (2000) postulated that, “how people feel during and after activity may be critical in determining whether they continue. Hence, emotion and mood may be motivational.”
So again, this commentary around making exercise pleasant and enjoyable for optimal adherence has been around for a while now. However, objective evidence that aims to identify a link between affective responses and exercise behaviours is still in its preliminary stages. Here are a couple of examples:
- Kwan & Brian (2010) assessed positive affect, negative affect, tranquility, and fatigue during and after 30 minutes of treadmill exercise at 65% maximal oxygen consumption in 129 adults. These were the results: (1) Larger increases in positive affect and decreases in fatigue during exercise were associated with more frequent self-reported aerobic exercise 3 months later; (2) More tranquility and less fatigue during recovery were related with more frequent exercise.
- Hutchinson et al. (2020) examined the effect of an increasing or decreasing intensity resistance training protocol on pleasure and enjoyment in 40 adults. The group that participated in the protocol that progressively decreased in intensity throughout the exercise session resulted in more overall post-exercise pleasure, enjoyment of resistance training, and remembered pleasure when compared to the participants in the increasing intensity protocol.
Although this area of research remains in its infancy, these findings raise the possibility that exercise-induced increases or decreases in pleasure may contribute to the formation of a positive or negative memory trace for exercise. In turn, this memory may influence subsequent decisions to engage in, adhere to, or drop out from exercise (Ekkekakis et al. 2011).
Now… how can we apply this information to ourselves and to our clients? Well, there are two things we need to consider first: (1) an individual’s lactate threshold, and (2) an individual’s capacity for self-regulation.
Lactate Threshold – “The Burn”
As mentioned earlier, there are some people who enjoy “the burn”, but there are some people who don’t. In other words, there’s a large amount of individual variability in emotional responses associated with “feeling the burn.” With that said, an appropriate goal for practitioners would be to identify a level of intensity near the lactate threshold, at which an individual can maintain a constant or improving (but not diminishing) level of pleasure.
Once we find that “sweet spot” of exercise intensity around our lactate threshold, we must be able to self-regulate using our sense of pleasure or displeasure as a guide. This is where healthcare practitioners can come into the equation by teaching clients how to do so using principles of biofeedback, and tools such as a rating of perceived exertion. Adopting this approach may help gradually transition people into higher intensities, while still keeping it enjoyable.
In summary: Start low and go slow.
Human emotion appears to play a more significant role in ones decision to participate and adhere to physical activity and exercise. From a healthcare provider’s standpoint, it would be ideal to do anything possible to promote pleasure in physical activity for the purpose of achieving long-term adherence to an active lifestyle in our clients.
The arguments presented in this blog post are, by no means, discounting the validity, efficacy, or importance of the previously discussed cognitive theories. As mentioned earlier – they play an important role. However, they do not tell the whole story. Thus, understanding the interplay between human cognition and affect is imperative to achieving the successful health outcomes we strive for in our daily clinical practice.
(1) Janssen, I. (2012). Health care costs of physical inactivity in Canadian adults. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, & Metabolism, 37, 803-806.
(2) Kohl, H., Craig, C. et al. (2012). The pandemic of physical inactivity: Global action for public health. The Lancet, 380(9838), 294-305.
(3) Ekkekakis, P., & Dafermos, M. (2012). Exercise Is a Many-Splendored Thing, but for Some It Does Not Feel So Splendid: Staging a Resurgence of Hedonistic Ideas in the Quest to Understand Exercise Behaviour. Oxford Handbooks Online.
(4) Ekkekakis, P., Parfitt, G., & Petruzzello, S.J. (2011). The pleasure and displeasure people feel when they exercise at different intensities: Decennial update and progress towards a tripartite rationale for exercise intensity prescription. Sports Med, 41(8), 641-671.
(5) Hitchinson, J.C., Zenko, Z., Santich, S., & Dalton, P.C. (2020). Increasing the pleasure and enjoyment of exercise: A novel resistance-training protocol. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 42(2), 143-152.
Cross-Referenced from (3):
(6) Simon, H.A. (1983). Reason in human affairs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
(7) Leonard, F.E. (1915). Pioneers of modern physical training (2nd ed.). New York: Association Press.
(8) Dishman, R.K., Sallis, J.F., & Orenstein, D.R. (1985). The determinants of physical activity and exercise. Public Health Reports, 100, 158-171.
(9) Biddle, S.J.H. (2000). Exercise, emotions, and mental health. In Y.L. Hanin (Ed.) Emotions in sport (pp. 267-291). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Cross-Referenced from (4):
(10) United States Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010. 2nd ed., vol. 2. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000.
(11) Kwan, B.M., & Bryan, A. (2010). In-task and post-task affective response to exercise: Translating exercise intentions into behaviour. Br J Health Psychol, 15: 115-131.
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