A YouTube video from a Channel called ‘What I’ve Learned’ recently caught my eye. The video was titled “Why Exercise is Underrated.” Immediately, I question the assumption of the title. Is exercise underrated? The video focused on the faulty marketing of the fitness industry, saying that it focused on the wrong messages. All the while, the tacit assumption of the title was never challenged. No effort was made to examine any available statistics related to exercise behaviors, whether it be exercise avoidance or favorable and unfavorable attitudes toward exercise. Should such statistics exist, I am sure the content of the video would have changed greatly. Lest you think this was an isolated occurrence, the question “Why is Exercise So Underrated” is a very common Google search.
But how did I know to question the title? Well, because one thing I’ve researched extensively, written about, and questioned is the psychology of sport and exercise. More specifically, I have concerned myself with a subject I think all fitness professionals would do well to examine: The Social Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
To start, a great primer on Social Psychology might be a good idea. I would recommend the text on Social Psychology by David G. Myers.
We tend to focus on motivations for exercise and for sport. Well, exercise is often conducted in a social context and our understanding of the motivations and behaviors of people involved in recreational exercise for health or for other reasons can be greatly enhanced by understanding the social psychology of fitness behaviors.
If the author of the video above would have done more research, he may have come across statements like this:
…research has focused on the descriptive epidemiology of physical inactivity among populations in industrialized nations. Such an investigation aims to outline the extent to which people attain the recommended levels of physical activity associated with good health. Results from studies have consistently indicated that there is an epidemic of inactivity among these populations.
– Hagger, et al
So, one premise of the video is true. Many people in industrialized nations do not get enough physical activity. For example, health surveys in the United States have shown that around 30% of people did not participate in any type of regular physical activity.
But, does this mean we should assume exercise is underrated? Do people hate exercise? Do they view it unfavorably, as unimportant?
A bit of education in psychology will tell you that people’s behavior is not always a good indication of their underlying attitudes.
And if we examine the statistics further, we find this hold true in fitness activities, as:
Alongside these statistics that seem to indicated low levels of regular physical activity among many industrialized nations, surveys have also suggested that majority of people believe that physical activity is important to health but only about 50% of people surveyed agreed they needed to do more physical activity than they currently did…
– Hagger, et al.
And, despite the explosion of fitness industry marketing on the internet, these activity levels haven’t changed much in recent years.
Why? It’s not because people underrate exercise. Much of the time, it is because they believe they get enough exercise, even when they don’t.
You see, how a person feels about exercise does not automatically tell use about their motivation to exercise. Think about how many activities you view favorably. Now think about how many of them you actually engage in regularly. I love the idea of woodworking, for example. But, I never do it.
So, why don’t I? If I examine my thoughts, I find that my along with my favorable attitude toward the idea of woodworking, I also have a number of perceived barriers. Cost of materials, for one. Time needed to learn about tools and their maintenance. Space available. All of these factor into my motivation to do woodworking. What are the perceived barriers to engaging in physical activity?
The reasons often assumed by the fitness industry for exercise avoidance are almost always completely incorrect. It is often assumed that people hate the very idea of exercise, and therefore messages aimed at strengthening positive attitudes, such as motivational or inspirational memes, will increase engagement in physical activity. But, most likely, those affected by such messages already have positive attitudes toward exercise. While they may be temporarily inspired to begin a fitness program, their long-term motivations are not likely affected.
It is also often assumed that people are just lazy. There actually is no such thing as a person who is “just” lazy. Instead, barriers to activity, including social support, low arousal, and other factors compete with motivation to exercise. You might often hear people say “I just can’t get myself off the couch to exercise” or “I can’t seem to pull myself together.” Have you ever thought about these types of statements? Clearly, when we say things like this we are not just a “lazy person.” It’s as if two people are involved, the motivated one and the “lazy” one. So how does the motivated person become strong enough to pull the lazy one off the couch? It may be harder than you think for this to occur.
That feeling of laziness is accompanied by many other perceived barriers, after all. Some of the major barriers to exercise found in different surveys have been:
- health issues
- physical limitation
- previous injury
- poor health in general
- psychological problems
- lack of access to facilities
- facilities too crowded
- lack of transportation
- prior commitments
- lacking energy and motivation
- feeling lazy
- exercise requires too much effort
- lack of social support
- no one to exercise with
- no support from spouse or family
- lack of time
- lack of money
- thinking that exercise programs are too expensive
A study by Ruby, Dunn, Perrino, Gillis, and Viel (2011) found something somewhat surprising, though. Their results, from four experiments, suggested that the participants enjoyed exercising much more than they thought they would. Therefore, could it be that people routinely underestimate their enjoyment of exercise? And why do they do so? The researchers found that participants placed too much weight on the beginning of workout out, which is routinely much tougher. This caused a myopic focus on how hard it was to begin exercising. Finding ways to help people both expect more enjoymend, and to increase their enjoyment, should promote more exercise participation. – Ruby, et al.
For years, I have been saying a few things about fitness and strength training programs that go ignored. One is that basing exercise prescriptions on fitness data while ignoring psychological motivation and readiness is doomed to failure. Two, overly restrictive programs do little to enhance motivation for exercise and they often are too intense or too high-volume for the individual, promoting early burnout. And the biggest reason: Overly prescriptive programs do not help to promote a responsibility to self-governance. They are not empowering and often fail to induce long-term changes in behavior.
One thing the video I mentioned above got right, then, was that the very things that the fitness industry focuses on help to promote exercise avoidance.
People may, of course, fail to sustain exercise because it seems too hard and each workout or exercise session is too hard. In fact, a common question is “Why don’t my workouts ever get any easier?” The related video below explains this problem and lists the reasons why your workouts may never seem to get easier.