Sports and Identity

Exercise  identity  is  a  construct  that  captures  the extent to which one sees exercise as a part of one’s self-concept,  or  who  one  is.  This  self-perception has been related to exercise behavior and may be of interest to researchers and practitioners who are invested in understanding and promoting exercise adherence.  Adhering  to  recommended  levels  of exercise  has  been  reliably  linked  to  the  procurement  of  health  benefits,  yet  the  majority  of  the population  remain  insufficiently  active  to  benefit from exercise. Consequently, researchers and practitioners alike pursue a variety of solutions to the widespread and complex problem of exercise nonadherence. As one avenue to address this problem, researchers  have  begun  to  investigate  how  self-perceptions,  or  how  one  views  oneself,  influence exercise  behavior.  This  approach  to  understanding  exercise  behavior  is  consistent  with  the  position  advocated  by  social  psychological  theorists that  self-views  have  implications  for  the  motivation and execution of goal-directed behavior. One self-perception that has received increased research attention relative to exercise adherence is identity.

Identity and Identity Theory

Identity is a construct appreciated and studied in a  wide  range  of  contexts.  For  example,  the  term identity has been applied relative to, among other categories, cultures, nations, groups, and individuals.  When  applied  with  the  goal  of  understanding  how  identity  influences  the  self-regulation  or management  of  goal-directed  behavior,  the  conceptualization  of  identities  as  provided  by  Peter J. Burke is useful. Burke, an influential proponent of  identity  theory,  views  identities  as  role  meanings, or what it means for an individual to hold a particular role in society. Socialization is thought to result in shared conceptualizations among individuals about what it means to hold a particular role in society that, in turn, prescribes acceptable behavior  for  a  given  role.  Given  shared  social knowledge, most people are able to describe what it  means  to  hold  particular  roles  in  society,  such as  exerciser  (e.g.,  an  exerciser  is  someone  who engages in regular exercise). Identification involves classifying oneself as holding that societal role and internalizing  the  meanings  associated  with  that role (e.g., I am an exerciser, and exercisers engage in regular exercise. Engaging in regular exercise is a part of who I am).

Burke  has  suggested  that  identities  function as  self-regulating  control  systems  that  encourage identity-consistent behavior. Because the meanings associated  with  an  identity  are  incorporated  into one’s sense of self, identities serve as a personally relevant  standard  for  behavior;  individuals  are motivated  to  maintain  consistency  between  their identity (e.g., I am an exerciser. Exercisers engage in regular exercise) and their behavior (e.g., I will engage  in  regular  exercise).  According  to  identity theory,  when  an  individual  perceives  that  his  or her  behavior  is  at  odds  with  his  or  her  identity, he  or  she  should  experience  negative  affect  (e.g., dissatisfaction,  guilt)  that,  in  turn,  motivates  the individual to verify the identity through his or her behavior.  As  an  example,  an  individual  who  perceives herself as an exerciser (and therefore someone  who  exercises  regularly)  who  also  perceives that  her  exercise  identity  has  not  been  verified through  her  behavior  (she  has  not  exercised  for over a week) should experience negative affect and resume exercise as a means of verifying the identity.  When  no  discrepancy  between  identity  and behavior  is  detected,  identity  verification  should be in place and no adjustment in behavior is necessary.  While  an  identity  is  theorized  to  serve  as  a self-regulatory  control  system  for  all  individuals who identify with a behavior variations in identity strength  or  salience  are  thought  to  influence  the effectiveness of the self-regulatory control system; identity  theorists  posit  that  individuals  are  more likely to behave consistent with an identity when it is strongly endorsed.

Exercise Identity and Exercise Behavior

Researchers and practitioners interested in understanding and promoting exercise adherence recognize the behavioral self-regulatory implications of the identity construct. Consequently, the relationship  between  exercise  identity  (or  related  variations of the construct such as physical activity [PA] identity) and exercise behavior has been examined. It  has  been  well  established  that  exercise  identity is positively associated with a variety of exercise related outcomes. For example, strength of exercise identity has been associated with how many minutes and how frequently people exercise in a week, how hard people exercise (perceived exertion) and physiological outcomes of exercise including measures of cardiorespiratory fitness (e.g., VO2max), and  anthropometric  variables  (e.g.,  percentage  of body fat). While most of the research on exercise identity has been done on university and community  samples,  support  for  the  ameliorative  effect of  identity  on  exercise  behavior  extends  to  older adults.

In  addition  to  being  associated  with  exercise behavior,  exercise  identity  has  also  been  associated  with  variables  known  to  influence  the self-regulation  of  exercise.  For  example,  when compared  to  individuals  with  lower  scores  on exercise  identity,  individuals  with  higher  scores also  report  holding  their  intentions  for  future exercise  more  strongly  and  exhibit  higher  scores of  self-regulatory  efficacy—or  one’s  confidence in  one’s  a  ability  to  manage  (e.g.,  schedule,  plan) exercise behavior. Further, when studied over time, exercise identity appears to serve as a mechanism through which exercise identity exerts its influence on exercise adherence. Specifically, having a strong exercise  identity  predicts  self-regulatory  efficacy for  exercise  that,  in  turn,  predicts  frequency of  exercise  behavior.  Planning  of  exercise  also appears to explain in part the relationship between exercise identity and exercise behavior; PA identity has been found to predict planning of exercise that then  predicts  individual  perceptions  of  progress toward PA goals.

Researchers from the self-determination theory (SDT) literature also suggests that exercise identity may be related to variables that are known to be important  in  the  self-regulation  of  exercise.  SDT, a  psychological  theory  conceptualized  by  Deci and  Ryan,  suggests  that  when  individuals  engage in a behavior for self-determined reasons, such as enjoyment or because doing so is in line with one’s personal  goals  (as  opposed  to  external  reasons such  as  external  pressure  or  pursuit  of  reward), positive  behavioral  outcomes  such  as  adherence result.  Stronger  endorsement  of  exercise  identity positively  relates  to  engaging  in  exercise  for  self-determined  reasons.  According  to  SDT,  exercise identity may encourage exercise adherence through its association with adaptive motives for exercise.

Further  support  for  the  idea  that  exercise identity  promotes  the  successful  self-regulation of  exercise  comes  from  research  examining  how individuals  respond  when  their  exercise  identity is  challenged.  Individuals  who  report  high  and those  who  report  moderate  levels  of  exercise identity who are asked to imagine that they have been much less active than usual both respond in a manner that suggests they would self-regulate to bring their exercise back in line with their identity. For  example,  individuals  report  that  they  would experience negative affect such as disappointment and guilt, would intend to increase their exercise, and  would  employ  self-regulatory  strategies  to help get their exercise back on track if they found themselves  in  a  situation  where  they  had  been much  less  active  than  usual.  However,  individuals  who  report  higher  levels  of  exercise  identity have  reported  a  stronger  self-regulatory  response to the scenario than individuals who report moderate  levels.  These  findings  hold  regardless  of whether  the  individual  perceives  the  cause  of  the identity-inconsistent  behavior  to  be  within  (e.g., poor  time  management)  or  outside  (e.g.,  exercise facility  unavailable)  his  or  her  personal  control. Individuals  react  similarly  to  real-life  perceptions that  their  recent  exercise  has  not  been  consistent with their exercise identities. For example, strength of  exercise  identity  moderates  affective  reactions to  one’s  perceptions  that  recent  behavior  is  at odds  with  one’s  exercise  identity;  negative  affect increases as perceptions of identity-behavior inconsistency increases but this relationship is stronger for  individuals  with  stronger  exercise  identity scores. It also appears that participants who identify as exercisers exhibit a self-regulatory response to  identity-challenging  feedback  when  feedback about  exercise  identity  comes  from  others  (e.g., others in a situation perceive that the participant is not an exerciser). Finally, among members of running groups, strength of exercise identity (specifically, runner identity) appears to promote adaptive responses  to  the  possibility  of  the  running  group disbanding. For example, strength of runner identity has been associated with self-efficacy for running and less difficulty running in the face of group disbandment. Taken together, these findings are in accordance  with  identity  theory;  exercise  identity appears to act as a self-regulatory control system that  helps  people  adhere  to  identity-congruent behavior  even  in  the  face  of  challenges  and  the effectiveness  of  this  system  may  be  influenced  by strength of exercise identity.

Based  on  what  is  known  about  exercise  identity  to  date,  exercise  identity  can  be  considered  a reliable  correlate  and  predictor  of  exercise  adherence.  Further,  exercise  identity  is  associated  with a variety of variables that are recognized for their ameliorative  influence  on  exercise  adherence.  In the  case  of  some  of  these  adherence-related  variables  (e.g.,  self-efficacy,  planning),  exercise  identity  may  exert  its  influence  on  exercise  adherence through  these  variables.  Together  these  findings support identity theory propositions regarding the role of exercise identity in promoting the successful self-regulation of exercise.

Practical Implications

Given  that  exercise  identity  has  been  established as  a  reliable  correlate  and  predictor  of  exercise regulation  and  adherence,  a  logical  and  practical  question  to  ask  is  how  can  we  promote  the strengthening or formation of exercise identities as a  means  for  fostering  exercise  adherence?  A  first concern for the enterprise of building and strengthening identities is whether or not this construct is amenable  to  change.  Proponents  of  identity  theory such as Burke describe identities as being relatively  stable  and,  by  their  very  nature,  resistant to  change.  Indeed,  previous  research  has  demonstrated  that  once  established,  people  work  hard to  protect  and  confirm  their  exercise  identities. Efforts at changing identities may be best targeted at  situations  where  identity  change  is  most  probable  such  as  when  individuals  are  embarking  on an exercise program and a few studies have demonstrated exercise identity change in these settings. These preliminary findings suggest that change in exercise identity is a possibility.

As  reviewed  previously,  many  correlates  of exercise  identity  have  been  identified  (e.g.,  self-efficacy,  intentions).  Deborah  Kendzierski  and her  colleagues  offered  a  formal  model,  the  PA self-definition  model,  aimed  at  outlining  factors associated  with  PA  self-definition,  a  construct conceptually  similar  to  exercise  identity.  This model  demonstrates  that  when  studied  cross-sectionally, perceived commitment and ability relative to exercise directly relate to PA self-definition while  enjoyment  of  exercise,  perceived  wanting, and  trying  to  exercise  are  indirect  determinants. This  model  makes  a  contribution  by  imposing some  order  on  some  of  the  many  correlates  of exercise  identity  and  suggesting  how  they  may work  together  in  association  with  this  construct. Further, this model holds potential as a basis for intervention  efforts  aimed  at  increasing  exercise identity.

Importantly,  researchers  are  also  beginning  to determine  which  variables  are  associated  with change  in  exercise  identity.  Preliminary  efforts  to this end employ both quantitative and qualitative research  and  suggest  a  number  of  variables  are associated with change in exercise identity. These variables  include  perceptions  of  changes  in  skill mastery,  physical  changes  in  the  body,  progress toward exercise goals, perceived achievement, control,  and  belonging.  Thus,  research  is  starting  to point to factors that may be important in strengthening or building exercise identities. Future intervention efforts that target these variables to bring about  change  in  identity  will  help  determine  the best  path  to  identity  change.  Exercise  identity appears  to  be  an  important  construct  related  to exercise adherence and further research exploring the role of this construct in the promotion of exercise,  including  intervention  efforts,  is  likely  and warranted.


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  7. Strachan, S. M., Brawley, L. R., Spink, K. S., & Jung, M.E. (2009). Strength of exercise identity and identityexercise consistency: Affective and social cognitive relationships. Journal of Health Psychology, 14,1196–1206. doi: 10.1177/1359105309346340

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