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.
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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