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How can we make exercise behaviours sustainable?

Three key psychological components (Competence, Autonomy & Relatedness) for maintaining motivation to exercise and physical activity, why you should consider incorporating them.

Debunking Myths About Exercise

When it comes to exercise and physical activity a lot of us often find despite starting with the greatest intent of sustaining exercise behaviours, sometimes we are not able to keep our exercise behaviours going. It is important to take the time to understand why this is the case and what barriers are preventing us from achieving this sustainability that we are striving for. Despite common beliefs, weight loss motives, body image maintenance and external pressure do not tend to lead to successful increases in physical activity or healthy eating over time.

Several psychological factors need to be considered when it comes to sustaining exercise over a long period of time.

Three Key Psychological Components

According to psychologists Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (1985) our motivation to exercise can be influenced by three key psychological components which will be discussed throughout this blog. If you want to sustain your exercise behaviours over a long period of time it is really important to take a look at incorporating these three psychological components into your exercise routines. We often spend so much time focusing on the physical aspects of exercise that we can forget about the key psychological processes underpinning these exercise behaviours which will ultimately determine whether or not we sustain our exercise behaviours.

As we go through these three motivational components it’s important to understand how they tie into our exercise goals (e.g., weight loss etc) and our perception of exercise (whether it’s something we enjoy, fits with our values, helps us achieve our goals or not).

1. Autonomy/Personal Responsibility (Taking control over your exercise behaviours)

Many of us will feel that COVID has really tested our sense of control and structure over our exercise behaviours as the closure of gyms and life as we know it has in some sense made us live more sedentary lifestyles than we are use to.

As COVID restrictions have eased and gyms have started to open up again, it’s important that we take this opportunity to start to be able to explore our exercise behaviours and physical activity.

What strategies can we use to increase our autonomy?

The best way to take control over our exercise behaviours and maintain motivation is to get into the habit of exercising and being physically active on a regular basis even if this is in small amounts initially. Creating an exercise routine which is suitable to us which we know we can maintain in the short term is essential to becoming as active as we were before. In her blog link), Dr Paula Watson highlights “For long term success, healthy eating and physical activity need to become a way of life, not a journey to an end point” and this is really important to consider as we take responsibility for our exercise behaviours.

When taking responsibility for our exercise behaviours it helps to be clear and intentional about what our goals are and take the time to regularly evaluate these goals. When we are working towards a broader goal which we can visualize and incorporate into exercise as a way of life we have a lot more incentive to follow through with our actions. We might set a goal with a friend or someone who we exercise with to remind us of our end goal. Goals are good for maintaining motivation but only when we take the time to evaluate and understand whether we are being accountable about our goals or if we are being passive, with a set and forget mindset.

Whilst we can have some sort of routine which makes us feel accountable for our exercise behaviours, it’s also important that we have a sense of variety when creating exercise routines. When things get too repetitive, they can also get quite boring and our behaviours can easily cease because they no longer bring that sense of excitement and challenge which we are searching for. Adding some novelty to our routines is essential to maintaining motivation in the long, potentially making us feel more excited and actively involved with our exercise routines.

2. Competence/Believing in your abilities

We have a tendency to repeat behaviours which we know we are good at. Our past achievements can be a reminder of what we are good at. If we haven’t exercised in a long time we might not believe in ourselves as we did before especially if we are no longer in the shape that we were in before and we are not ticking off our exercise goals like we use to. We can often become demoralised when this happens.

If this is the case, we often need to remind ourselves first of what our strengths are from the past. When it comes to exercise and we are going back into exercise being out of shape it can be so easy to go into exercise with a negative mindset of feeling that you are no longer at your best and where you want to be. Like we have muscle memory we should also take the time out to think about our strengths from the past when it comes to exercise behaviours.

What strategies can we use to increase our competency?

A key solution to this is to make a list of all your strengths from the past and times when you have sustained your exercise behaviours.

A lot of the time we feel that we can’t do something based on our current mindset, however, if we look back far enough on our experiences we will find there were times, whereby, we had the opportunity to create change and do what we are trying to do now.

There has to also be an acceptance that it might take some time before we get back to full strength, therefore, in order to feel good about our exercise behaviours we must set smaller more intermittent goals which highlight our strengths and make us feel component.

When we go all out on a big goal and don’t feel we are achieving success quick enough we can be very quick to give up. There’s nothing wrong with having big goals, however, having smaller goals as we go can remind us of what we are good at and keep us motivated and aligned with our broader goal.

3. Relatedness/Connectedness With Others

As human beings we are a social species who have a need for relatedness and interaction with others.

The importance of relatedness when exercising

For any activity we attempt it also helps to have social support around us to guide us and provide us with that extra reinforcement we need. We have seen during COVID that people have used exercise and fitness challenges with friends as a way to stay connected and keep themselves accountable.

Having said that, going to the gym or being physical active doesn’t always need to be a serious activity. Sometimes it can be more of a chance to just connect with friends and like minded others, whilst also enjoying the physical benefits which come exercise.

When we are regularly seeing other people working hard to achieve their fitness goals it is not uncommon for us to want to go out and do the same. Surrounding yourself with people who are highly motivated to achieve their goals can do a lot of good for your own motivation.

Helpful Strategies To Maintain Motivation

1. Utilize goal setting – Ticking off and achieving goals can be important to building momentum, providing positive reinforcement to ourselves every time we achieve a goal whether big or small can keep us going in the long term.

2. Track and monitor your physical activity – Noticing patterns and becoming more aware of changes in our physical activity can make us understand why we aren’t exercising at the level we want to be. We might notice any barriers to exercise; however, sometimes we might first need to make ourselves aware of our exercise patterns before we recognise barriers.

3. Allocate a set time for exercise- When we have a lot to do and we don’t set aside time for exercise it can be easy to say we will fit it in at some point during the day. This can result in us not exercising at all. If, however, we set aside a specific time for exercise we can build a sense of routine and structure, reminding ourselves that we have a set time for exercise.

4. Have an accountability partner – We all have different patterns of motivation and sometimes we may need an extra boost from those around us. Setting fitness goals with a friend or going to the gym with a friend is a great way to maintain the social aspects of exercise whilst also having someone else who can encourage us to keep at our exercise regimes.

5. Highlight what went well in a exercise session, rewarding yourself for it – Far too often we can focus on things which aren’t going well that we actually forget what are strengths are and this is applicable to our exercise routines.

6. Know when to mix up your exercise routine – Anything done repeatedly over time in the same manner has the potential to undermine your competence. In order to move away from the boredom of repetitiveness and push ourselves further we should recognise when we need to mix up our routines.

If you have any questions or would like additional support, please email or fill out the contact form at the bottom of the page.


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