It’s that time of year when many of us are trying our best to begin a new exercise habit. One psychological factor affecting our chances is how we think we’ll feel during the exercise, and how that compares to the way we actually feel when we get going, and how we feel afterwards. A new study in Health Psychology has explored whether it’s possible to increase people’s adherence to a new exercise regime by making their expectations more positive. While the main intervention was a disappointment, there is an encouraging message in the results: moderate-to-vigorous exercise is likely to be more enjoyable than you think, and simply knowing this will probably help you enjoy your exercise even more.
Bethany Kwan at University of Colorado School of Medicine and her colleagues recruited 101 healthy young men and women aged 18 to 45. None of them were elite or professional athletes. Their initial challenge was to run for 30 minutes on a treadmill in the lab (at a sustained target intensity of 90 to 100 per cent of their heart rate when first out of breath), and to say how they were feeling at several points throughout and afterwards. The researchers then asked them to repeat the same amount of exercise each day for the next seven days, with their adherence assessed via a heart monitor.
Before the participants began, the researchers asked them how they expected to feel during the exercise. Crucially, the researchers manipulated the expectations of one third of the participants in a positive manner by telling them that most people exercising at this intensity feel good and energised, and then relaxed afterward. In contrast, they told another third of the participants that most people find this intensity of exercise negative and unpleasant, and then they feel tired afterward. The expectations of the remainder of the participants was not manipulated and they acted as controls. After their lab run, the participants said how strongly they intended to keep up the week-long regimen of exercise.
Kwan and her team had hoped that by increasing the positivity of participants’ exercise expectations that these individuals would not only find the lab exercise more positive during and afterwards, but would then show stronger intentions to exercise and better adherence to the regimen. The results were a mixed bag.
Overall, participants found the lab run more pleasant than they thought they would. But participants who were manipulated to expect the lab run to be more enjoyable did not exercise more through the following week. In this sense, the main intervention was a failure.
However, participants manipulated to expect the lab run to be more enjoyable showed greater increases in positive feelings through the run compared to the negatively manipulated participants; moreover, compared with control participants, they remembered the run as less fatiguing. This last effect, though tentative, could be important because the more positively participants remembered the lab run, the more they tended to run through the ensuing week. This supports the common sense idea that when you’ve finished your exercise, it could be beneficial to focus on those aspects of the experience you enjoyed: doing so might increase the likelihood you’ll give it another go.
The researchers said their results suggest that “healthy individuals will likely find a moderate-to-vigorous exercise stimulus to be more pleasant than they expect it to be” and that encouraging exercisers to focus on the positive aspects of the exercise experience will likely “yield an overall more positive affective experience”. Hopefully the mere act of reading this article will help, by raising your expectations for your own new regime!