Why you can't commit to exercise

Ever wondered why we struggle to commit to exercise? This is the research aiming to help you stick to it.

We've all experienced it. That sudden burst of motivation that's enough for you put on your exercise gear and get moving. Afterwards, you feel great and think to yourself, "I'm going to make this a regular thing".

You might even set yourself a goal: "I'm going to train to do a 10 kilometre run in under an hour", "I'm going to lose 5 kilograms before summer", "I'm going to go to the gym every day until I can lift 100 kilograms".

That day you were in the zone, but today you just can't even fathom the thought of exercising again. Why?

That's the question researchers at UOW are trying to answer. Part of the team is Matthew Schweickle, who's doing his PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Matthew says the research, funded by the Global Challenges Program, explores the role of psychology in combating low levels of physical activity.

After we set New Year's resolutions, the volume of new gym memberships and exercise gear sold increases. But often by about February, our motivation fades and we go back to old habits.

This research is aiming to keep people in the game - to help people stay active, and live well, longer.

It's about finding ways to stick to exercise long term.

"Research indicates the most important thing when starting out isn’t how we feel after exercise, but how we feel during" - Matthew Schweickle

Enjoying exercise

With all those feel-good hormones that are released as a result of exercise, it's safe to say most of us feel pretty great after a workout. But it's how you feel during exercise that can be a struggle, particularly when you first begin your routine.

Matthew says it's this experience that could play a role in our ongoing commitment (or lack thereof) to staying active.

"What a lot of research is showing now is that subjective experiences - your perceptions of exercise, how you enjoy it and how you feel about it - play a massive role in whether you're going to keep doing it, rather than just looking at what you can do physically," says Matthew.

"If people feel crap for an hour in the gym, they are much less likely to go again afterwards, than those who feel good for an hour."

It's really about trying to understand how to provide positive experiences of exercise, where people feel good and want to keep doing it again and again.

2018 animated calendar

You’re not alone. About 50 per cent of people drop out of an average six-month exercise program. Sometimes, that can even reach the high 80s. Animation: Jasper Smith

The goals of exercise

Involved with the initial phases of the study was former UOW sport and exercise psychology researcher Dr Christian Swann, who is now at Southern Cross University. He says small changes to the type of goals we set, and the way we set we set them could be a simple way of helping people commit to exercise. Dr Swann explains how the goals we typically make can have a number of consequences, such as not giving you room to learn about developing strategies or exercising appropriately; introducing the possibility of failure detracting from your achievements; or, if the goal doesn't feel achievable, it could turn you off trying to exercise altogether.

The research suggests that when starting out, the type of goals we set and how we set them may influence our experience while exercising.

Dr Swann says it's important to consider how we help people enjoy exercise, and which goals are best to achieve that.

Matthew Schweickle conducting research at UOW's Sports Hub. 

Exercise is complex

The team say that setting goals for exercise isn't necessarily straightforward - and there are a lot of things to consider.

You may need to learn to use new equipment and exercise under the guidance of a professional. You might also lack confidence in what you're doing, or struggle to make time for physical activity.

If you push too hard, it can hurt. Dr Swann says people often follow the "no pain, no gain" mantra. This assumption that you have to work until it hurts in order for exercise to be productive could stop your momentum. Rather than enjoying what you do, you could push yourself so hard that instead it puts you off.

Looking at existing research, and through this study, Dr Swann says there's good evidence to suggest that how we feel while we're exercising is one of the most important things to consider.

"Initially if it's unpleasant, the exercise hurts, or you're pushing so hard you feel sick, there's no room for enjoyment. The likelihood of sticking with something we don't enjoy is low. So figuring out how best to set goals is really important," he says.

The overall goal?

The team hopes to use this research will help people commit to exercise longterm - to raise levels of physical activity and improve people's health.

"For me as a researcher in psychology, I'd love to see this study find a way to help people engage in exercise more often, and fall in love with it," says Dr Swann.

While the research is still in an early phase, Matthew says he hopes the findings will one day provide valuable information for people who prescribe exercise, such as exercise physiologists, GPs and personal trainers.

"If there is scope for us to make a minor tweak in how exercise is prescribed - which is more effective than the current approach - it could lead to sustainable long-term changes. Maybe we can say to the people who have struggled to stay with exercise, 'why don't you try it in this way instead, and there will be a better chance you'll stay with it long term'."

Research participants are asked to do three six-minute walks with different goals, before answering some questions about their experience. 

Want answers?

If you're tired of having to go and buy new workout clothes in order to get motivated, why not help out with the research? The team is still seeking more participants to complete data collection.

"At the moment, we're inviting participants between 18-75 to come to UOW for an hour session," says Matthew. "In that one-off session, there are three bouts of walking, six minutes each attempt with a rest in between. It's all self-paced and we give you instructions for what to do each attempt. We provide free parking, and as a thank you, you get a $20 voucher."

If you would like to participate in the research, contact Matthew Schweickle at mjs815@uowmail.edu.au


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