It’s early March. Any fitness pro knows the New Year’s cycle: large numbers of nonexercisers vow to get fit, show up in January–and then disappear within a month or two. How can you prevent this?
People fall off the workout wagon for many reasons: Too tired. Too busy. Too boring. Too hard. Let’s 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.
Why Intentions Aren’t Enough
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 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.
From Optimism to Proactive Pessimism
New Year’s Day is an especially big trigger for unrealistic optimism. Many members will be showing 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 intention increase only the person’s 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.
For more information, including a way of applying proactive pessimism with clients, please see “How Can Clients Keep Their New Year’s Resolutions?” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2012 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.
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