Good intentions aren’t enough. So what works?
In 2011, TIME magazine named the joint goal of losing weight and getting fit as the most commonly broken New Year’s resolution (TIME.com 2011). You don’t have to be psychic to predict a similar trend for 2012. Any fitness pro who’s been in the business for at least a year knows the New Year’s cycle: large numbers of nonexercisers vow to get fit, show up in January—and then disappear by mid-February.
There are many reasons people fall off the workout wagon: Too tired. Too busy. Too boring. Too hard. This article takes a look at why the motivation to change and the intention to work out aren’t always enough, and how you can help exercisers stick to their resolutions.
Most people view lack of exercise as a motivational problem: people just aren’t motivated enough to work out. The job of fitness professionals, then, is to help provide that motivation. But the latest research shows that this is not the most helpful way to think about why people choose not to exercise. It’s not that they lack the motivation to work out; it’s that they have strong countermotivations not to exercise (Richetin, Conner & Perugini 2011).
Common motivations for not exercising include wanting to spend more time with friends or family; trying to get more done at work; and avoiding anticipated pain, fatigue, injury or embarrassment. These motivations aren’t just distractions; they are compelling goals that often trump exercise motivations like losing weight or improving health. Whatever the countermotivation, if you can’t address it, it will continue to compete with a client’s fitness goals.
One way to approach this is to help clients examine both motivations. You may already be asking people why they want to get fit, but are you asking them what is most likely to get in the way? When they skip a workout, do you talk to them about what they did instead—and why, at the time, it seemed like the right decision?
For example, a client might notice that she’s most likely to forgo exercise when she’s feeling burnt out from work and craving some downtime. She chooses not to exercise because she wants to satisfy the motivation to unwind. Together, you could address this competing motivation in several different ways: by designing a yoga-based “relaxation” workout specifically for her most exhausting days; by scheduling morning sessions that will boost her energy throughout the day and prevent her from canceling at the end of the day when she is fatigued; and by talking about the importance of self-care in general and about strategies for stress reduction at work. When she understands that it’s important to meet the need to unwind after work, she can find ways to address it that won’t require sacrificing her fitness goals.
Fitness professionals often focus on getting people to move from general motivation (“I want to get fit” or “I will exercise more”) to specific intentions: “I will strength train three times a week.” “I will walk 2 miles every morning.” “I will take cardio dance on Mondays and indoor cycling on Wednesdays.”
This is smart. Research shows that setting action intentions—saying exactly what you are going to do to meet your goals—increases people’s success rate (Sheeran 2002). However, the same research shows that less than half of people who have strong intentions to exercise actually follow through. What explains this gap between intention and behavior?
One key reason has to do with how we think about the future. When people are asked to predict how much they will exercise in the next month, they automatically base their answers on an ideal world (Tanner & Carlson 2009). No sick kids. No late meetings at work. No back pain flare-ups. No must-see reality TV marathons. When researchers followed up with would-be exercisers to find out how much they actually worked out, the reality was far less than predicted. But despite this reality check, the same people then increased their estimates when asked to predict how much they would exercise in the next month. It was as if they viewed the previous month of competing demands as the exception, not the rule.
Why is this a problem? For one thing, it keeps people from making realistic plans that take into account all of the daily stress and obligations that tend to crowd out exercise. Unrealistic optimism helps people stay positive about an exercise goal (“It will be much easier to exercise next week”), while giving them convenient excuses for not exercising (“This week was insane”). The result is people who are motivated to exercise, but who somehow keep missing their goals.
So how do you help people set realistic expectations and make exercise a priority? One simple strategy is to ask clients two questions about their goals. First ask: “In an ideal world, how much would you exercise in a week?” Then follow up with: “How much time do you think you will have for exercise this week?” Research shows that when forced to contrast an ideal world with the real world, people are more likely to recognize potential conflicts. So instead of being surprised by the competing demands, they can set a realistic exercise plan they can stick with.
New Year’s Day is an especially big trigger for unrealistic optimism. Many members will show up with a “resolution high”—the warm glow that comes from deciding you are going to change for the better. Psychologists have found that this resolution high leads people to underestimate how external events and other forces will undermine their motivation (Koehler & Poon 2006). They fail to plan for obstacles and expect that it will be easy to act on their good intentions.
Unfortunately, the stronger the intention, the more likely people are to miss opportunities to act on it. They also fail to seek out the support they need to stick to their intention (Koehler, White & John 2011). Ironically, interventions designed to strengthen a person’s intention only increase optimistic predictions, not the behavior itself. So if you focus your motivation strategies on getting clients psyched up about the benefits of getting fit and committing to working out, you may make them feel good in the moment, but you won’t help them change their behavior.
Far more effective are interventions that help people recognize obstacles and create a plan of action to overcome them. You can think of this as proactive pessimism. One such intervention recruited 256 women who were interested in becoming more active (Stadler, Oettingen & Gollwitzer 2009). Half the women received only basic information about a healthy lifestyle, while the other half were asked to complete the following thought experiment:
- What is your most important exercise goal?
- What would be the most positive outcomes of meeting this goal?
- What is the biggest obstacle to this goal?
They then answered three questions about the obstacle:
- When and where is this obstacle most likely to occur?
- What can I do to prevent the obstacle from occurring?
- What specific thing will I do to help get back to my exercise goal when this obstacle happens?
Participants were encouraged to repeat this writing exercise every day, refining it based on what they noticed about their own motivations, obstacles and behavior. Completing this exercise doubled the average amount of time participants spent exercising each week (from 46 minutes to 103 minutes). The change started in the very first week, and the effect lasted all the way through a 4-month follow-up. (Compare that with the lifespan of the typical New Year’s resolution.)
Talking clients through this thought experiment—or giving them the questions to consider on their own—is one way to extend their commitment past January. You can also use the power of remorse to help clients stick to their goals. Research shows that anticipating how much you’ll later regret skipping a workout motivates people above and beyond imagining the positive outcomes of exercising (Abraham & Sheeran 2004). You can encourage clients to play out the consequences of their decision to exercise or to skip it. When they find themselves contemplating a workout, they can ask themselves, “How will I feel tomorrow about the decision I made today?”
When it comes to retaining new (or returning) exercisers, it’s important to honor the enthusiasm and hope that brought them to you. At the same time, it’s crucial to help them recognize the competing motivations, demands and other obstacles that could derail their New Year’s resolve. This combination of encouragement and realism gives exercisers the best chance of reaching their goals—and finding out what the gym looks like in springtime.