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Struggling to stick with exercise? A change in mindset might be needed

By on June 7, 2017 in Psychology Research with 0 Comments

Middle aged woman performing yoga outdoors

New research published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Public Health suggests that a shift in mindset may be the secret to maintaining a consistent exercise schedule.

The problem is an all too common one: you’ve read the headlines imploring you to be more physically active, and you mentally prepare yourself for a new exercise kick. An expensive gym membership may follow, along with short-term adherence to a new, healthier routine. However, like many Americans, your motivation may soon wane. In fact, existing research suggests that almost two-thirds of individuals who begin a regular exercise program will quit within just six months.

Examining the link between mindset and exercise consistency

The new study brought together a team of researchers from colleges including Kent State University (KSU) and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The scientists investigated a sample of 40 adult women aged between their early 20s and late 40s. 29 of the 40 individuals concerned were considered inactive (participating in less than 2 hours of exercise per week), while the remaining 11 all exceeded 2 hours of exercise per week.

Each of the women took part in an interview to understand what gave them subjective feelings of happiness and success in their lives. The researchers also asked the women about their attitude and feelings toward exercise.

Gathering this information allowed the team to investigate the role exercise plays in furthering or compromising the women’s wider happiness.

The Findings

Middle aged woman stretching

  • The active and inactive groups defined their requirements for happiness in broadly similar ways. They agreed that quality time with family and friends was an important element of happiness, as was helping others, stress-free leisure time and the accomplishment of personal goals from the mundane (like ticking off chores) to the more considerable (like progressing in their careers).
  • The groups began to diverge, however, when questioned on their attitudes toward exercise. The inactive women possessed views that suggested frequent exercise and happiness were incompatible and competing goals in the long-term. For instance, by pressuring themselves to perform exercise at a high intensity and for a certain amount of hours, these women undermined their need to feel relaxed in their leisure time. This conflict, in turn, may be a source of unhappiness that ultimately contributes to quitting an exercise program.
  • The higher levels of self-scrutiny amongst inactive women appeared to undermine happiness even after they abandoned their training routines. This may be because quitting in itself represents a failure to achieve a goal, eliminating the sense of accomplishment that appears to be one piece in the jigsaw of happiness.

Overcoming the Problem: Enjoyment Over Rigidity

The research team speculated that inactive women might be more sensitive to the widespread message that exercise must be lengthy and high-intensity to be effective. This all-or-nothing mindset can prevent women from enjoying the benefits of more moderate and mild forms of exercise.

Counteracting unrealistic expectations and focusing on enjoyment may be one effective way to improve adherence to an exercise program.

Interestingly, the highly active women in this study were more likely than the inactive women to express the opinion that missing a workout was not particularly consequential. They also tended not to rate exercise as one of the most important priorities in their lives.

If you’re inactive or regularly start (and quit) new training programs, these findings suggest you might benefit from focusing more on the enjoyment you get from physical activity. Instead of grinding out unenjoyable workouts, perhaps try something novel until you find an activity that is both fun and physically stimulating. For example:

  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • A team sport
  • Yoga
  • Cycling

This useful list has many more ideas for enjoyable exercises.

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About the Author

About the Author: Tom Andrews BSc is the founder of MentalWellnessToday.com and serves as its editor-in-chief. He devotes his time to psychology and mental health research and also enjoys climbing, hiking, and team sports. Tom is a contributor to several other highly regarded health magazines and blogs. .

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