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Attribution Theory

It’s not in my genes to be fit.” “My grandkids wore me out, and I can’t exercise.” “I was just lucky to lift that much weight.” “My days are so boring—the only thing I look forward to is a good meal.”

Have you ever heard these or similar excuses from older-adult personal training clients? When you hear such comments, do you wish people would take personal responsibility for their successes and failures and stop blaming outside forces? Do you find yourself hoping that clients could feel empowered to work harder and achieve their fitness and weight loss goals? With older adults, trainers may hear additional explanations for not exercising, such as feeling too tired in general, having physical ailments or being told by a doctor not to work too hard. Some of these reasons may be legitimate, while others may be in the client’s mind.

Excuses are easy to make, as they create a scapegoat for exercise or diet shortcomings. Excuses allow clients to ignore the real reasons why something did or did not happen and instead to attribute failures or successes to someone or something else. Fitness trainers can help rid clients of excuse-making habits by
reframing client attributions. Owning up to fitness achievements (or missteps)
empowers clients to take charge of their habits, time and exercise goals, and make the changes they want to see. Ultimately, this increases client success, self-confidence and satisfaction.

What Is Attribution Theory?

In behavioral psychology, attribution theory suggests that people attribute successes and failures to either internally or externally controlled forces and either stable or unstable traits (intrinsic personality characteristics, behaviors or thought patterns) (Weiner 1985). An internally controlled force is something a client has actual control over, such as amount of effort put forth in a particular exercise. An external force is an element beyond the client’s control, such as an energy-draining job or a body that is beginning to show the signs of age. Stable traits are those that do not change, whereas unstable traits can change. Genetics and age, for example, are both stable; there is no way a client can change genes or grow younger. Luck and effort, however, are both unstable traits. Effort level can change depending on the person. Luck may occur randomly and is often cited when an unexpected success occurs.

Common Attributions
and Reframing Them

In older adults, common attributions for a lack of physical activity include age,
declining health, prior injuries, doctor’s orders or low levels of energy. In listening to each of these reasons for failure to
exercise, trainers can think about ways to reframe a client’s attributions so that the excuses relate to unstable factors within the client’s control. When traits are
unstable and forces are internally controlled, the client can make a change.

Many older adults cling to their current age or declining health status as reasons why they can no longer be physically
active, according to Jan Schroeder, PhD,
assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach. Changing such thoughts requires attribution reframing or retraining. “For our part, we have to educate them,” she says. “They don’t have to live this life of disability, this life of being afraid to do something. Once we can educate them on that, it’s amazing.”

Schroeder often hears older adults
attribute an inability to exercise to physician’s orders not to engage in strenuous
activity. This directive appears to be an
external and stable condition out of personal control. “The doctor says, ‘You should not do this,’ and they take that as ‘I can’t
do this,’” Schroeder states. To re-educate
a client and reframe the attribution, Schroeder will go so far as to call the doctor and specify which activities the client can and cannot engage in. “What the doctor is saying is ‘Without supervision, you should avoid these activities.’ We call the physician and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’” Once the activity is given the green light, the client can no longer attribute avoidance of exercise to doctor’s orders.

Research supports the idea of attribution reframing or retraining as a way to empower older adults to make positive changes regarding their physical activity levels. In a study by Sarkisian and colleagues (2007), the researchers explain
attribution retraining as teaching older adults to “reject stable and uncontrollable attributions and instead adopt unstable and controllable explanations for failure.” In the study, 46 participants were encouraged to reject the idea that old age equals a sedentary lifestyle. Instead, they were encouraged to focus on what they could control, such as participating weekly in an exercise class and making a commitment to self and others to exercise. Study results indicated that attribution retraining, combined with a weekly physical activity class, improved the quality of life in sedentary older adults.

In addition, Weiner’s (1985) attribution theory posits that success is most often ascribed to high ability and hard work (i.e., “I really pushed myself—that’s why I succeeded”), while failure is attributed to lack of trying or low ability (i.e., “I’m no good at this”). To put this into practice with older adults, Schroeder says that starting slowly is key. “Allow older adults to become successful at something,” she suggests, as this will prompt them to attribute success to their own hard work and abilities. “We start very, very slowly, developing success and building the confidence that they can do something.” Only then do clients progress to more challenging activities.

Gradually increasing the level of challenge is also suggested by Cody Sipe, PhD, assistant professor in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. A common attribution he hears for the inability to exercise is total lack of energy. This attribution is especially problematic because it puts older adults in a negative
cycle. “They don’t have energy, they’re really lacking energy, and we know that the right kinds of exercise provide energy,” Sipe says. But asking older adults to engage in long, exhausting sessions will only confirm their belief about being too tired to exercise. Instead, Sipe recommends encouraging them to try shorter bouts of exercise that feel more attainable and realistic. This changes the attribution regarding energy level from stable (“My old body is just too tired”) to unstable (“I have enough energy for 10 minutes of exercise, then I’ll feel tired”).

Sipe adds that with shorter bouts, clients “get more energized by the routines, rather than worn-out. You’ve got to kind of dial back the intensity . . . until they get into a positive cycle, or until they feel a little better.”

Another attribution for failure to exercise is the idea that older adults aren’t supposed to exercise. “They think it’s just out of their societal role,” says Schroeder. “They say, ‘I’m supposed to be retired; I’m supposed to sit and watch TV, and I shouldn’t be lifting weights.’”

To reframe this attribution, Schroeder uses gentle encouragement. “It’s very different from training a younger adult. It’s more of a kind of coaxing them to do it in a soft way. It’s a different type of feeling with the older adults.” Once they experience success and feel good about exercise, they are likely to change their thinking about their social role.

Finally, a common mistake that personal trainers sometimes make, according to Sipe, is to unintentionally confirm a client’s thoughts of low ability by creating an exercise program that is too easy. “Part of that is the biases and those
misperceptions that we have about what being older is,” he mentions. Sipe encourages trainers to treat each client as an individual and not to rely on stereotypical ideas of older-adult ability or effort levels. “What I would avoid is, ‘Here’s a stamped-out approach that’s going to work with everybody.’ When you look at their lives, they’ve got a lot going on emotionally, with children, grandchildren, friends, life on their own, financial stability and dying, and that’s a lot to carry and figure out.”

He encourages trainers to remember that each client is different, and each has a unique life history and experiences that have shaped a particular attribution style. With styles varying among clients, trainers need to be open to hearing about each person’s needs and challenges. “Listen to their life stories, but also to what their concerns are, and really work with empathy toward them,” Schroeder advises. She also encourages fitness professionals to simply ask clients about their daily routines, physical ailments or current activity level. While listening, trainers can observe a client’s body positioning or movements and gain a better understanding of what is going on physically and what is feasible or realistic for that person to do.

Armed with an accurate physical assessment and knowledge of how to reframe attributions to emphasize controllable factors and unstable traits, personal trainers can be better prepared to lead older-adult clients on a journey of personal empowerment for improved physical fitness.

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