Many of the benefits of exercise come through sustained participation. Unfortunately, it is difficult for sedentary individuals to start an exercise program, and of those that do approximately 50% on average will drop out in the first 3 to 6 months. Furthermore, after 12 months most people who started a new exercise program will be sedentary again. As a result, a large body of literature is available on the degree to which different factors contribute to exercise adherence, defined as the degree to which an individual is able to sustain an exercise program. Among the many psychological factors that may contribute to exercise adherence, three broad categories that have received extensive research attention are outcome expectations, social influences, and perceptions of control.
Outcome expectations include the value that an individual puts on the outcomes associated with regular exercise as well as the likelihood that the person believes the outcome will occur. Outcome expectations can be positive (reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease) or negative (sore muscles or injury). The literature is mixed on the relationship between outcome expectations and exercise adherence. Still, most literature supports the notion that having positive outcome expectations is a necessary, though potentially insufficient, characteristic of exercise adherence. Further, when evaluating what value a person places on an outcome, one must take into account age and other demographics. Values vary significantly depending on the person involved. For example, older adults may place a higher value on perceived health and longevity than do younger adults. Older women may place more importance on the social aspects of exercise, while younger women may find physical activity as an important way to control weight. Value expectations may also differ between demographic groups. For example, Caucasian women generally may value physical activity as a method to lose weight, while Latina women may positively associate overweight with a healthy ideal and, therefore, not value physical activity from a weight-loss perspective. Finally, there is some evidence that the expected timing of the outcome is important. Specifically, if someone expects to lose 10 pounds in 1 week because of a new exercise program, it will be demotivating when that outcome does not happen when one wants it to happen.
Like outcome expectations, social influences are included in most theoretical models developed to predict exercise adherence. Social influences can include social support from a family member or friend, group norms or cohesion in an exercise class, or social environmental factors related to economic status or culture. The way people perceive social support can have positive and negative influences on exercise adherence. Positive social support from family members, friends, and others can include opportunities to exercise with the person, planning activities around exercise, and giving encouragement for the person to continue exercising. However, even these kinds of activities can negatively influence exercise adherence if the person receiving the support feels pressured. Social norms can also have a positive or negative impact on exercise adherence. Within an exercise class, norms and a sense of cohesion result in increased adherence. Similarly, normative beliefs related to people who are important to us or have expertise can influence adherence. Normative beliefs are formed when a person’s perception that other people who are personally important think the individual should engage in a specific behavior. For example, if a son believes that his mother is convinced track is the safest form of exercise for him, this belief will influence the subjective norm of the son, who may be apt to run instead of playing baseball, football, or another team sport. Alternatively, an individual who lives in a house full of other sedentary people may have a hard time initiating and sustaining an exercise regimen if the following is taking place: (1) subtle teasing (“Look at you wanting to be Mr. Universe”), (2) complaints about the time spent exercising, and (3) instances of sabotage.
Perception of Control
When people feel they have control over a situation, they are more likely to participate in a given behavior. Perceptions of control can be thought of as expectations related to one’s ability to complete a task. Self-efficacy is the most commonly studied control belief—the belief that one has the ability or the competency to complete a certain action. It is predictive of attendance of exercise classes, and like value expectancy, can be influenced by demographics or age. Older adults who may be afraid of injury could have lower self-efficacy than younger adults; however, researchers have hypothesized that methods to increase self-efficacy and exercise adherence include (1) having participants experience personal successes with their exercise regimen; (2) providing vicarious experiences, or modeling exercise behaviors; (3) integrating social and verbal persuasion; and (4) monitoring physiological states (soreness, sickness, etc.).
Although many people are likely to not stick with exercise programs and regimens, these factors may improve exercise adherence. Outcome expectations, social influences, and perceptions of control are closely related to the intentions and goals of a person. Indeed, these broad categories are interrelated. Outcome expectations are typically lower when participants do not value the outcomes of regular exercise. Also, when one’s self-efficacy is low, the likelihood of valued outcomes also decreases. Conversely, when social influences are supportive of exercise, then perceptions of control increase. All of these factors interact within the broader ecological milieu. Laws and policies related to ensuring safe biking, opportunities for children to walk to school, and traffic calming all contribute to exercise adherence, sometimes acting through outcome expectations, social influences, and perceptions of control and other times directly impacting an individual’s opportunities for exercise.
- Anderson, E. S., Wojcik, J. R., Winett, R. A., & Williams, D. M. (2006). Social-cognitive determinants of physical activity: The influence of social support, self efficacy, outcome expectations, and self-regulation among participants in a church-based health promotion study. Health Psychology, 25(4), 510–520.
- Carron, A. V., Hausenblas, H. A., & Mack, D. (1996). Social influence and exercise: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 18(1), 1–16.
- Dishman, R. K. (1994). Advances in exercise adherence. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Hagger, M. S., Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., & Biddle, S. J. H. (2002). A meta-analytic review of the theories of reasoned action and planned behavior in physical activity: Predictive validity and the contribution of additional variables. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 24(1), 3–32.