Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Psychology of Fitness

Cover Jan 2008 Observer
Cover Jan 2008 Observer
Association for Psychological Science
It’s only been a few weeks since you made that New Year’s resolution to exercise more, but already you’re finding reasons to skip days — maybe even weeks.

You know all the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Yet the temptation of sitting on the couch and watching TV instead of going for a short jog is just too great.

You’re not alone. According to the surgeon general, more than 60 percent of American adults don’t exercise regularly and 25 percent aren’t active at all. The Center for Disease Control says that 34 percent of Americans are overweight and more than 72 million people were obese from 2005 to 2006. Inertia has become a national emergency.

For decades, psychologists around the world have studied why people exercise — and why they don’t — and there’s a growing body of work dedicated to helping you get up off the couch.

Preferring to be sedentary is not necessarily an innate human trait. In fact, most children are actually quite active, and people generally stay active all the way through high school. But many of them stop being active when they reach college.

And it’s not just college. This rule applies to many of life’s transitions — moving into the workforce, switching jobs or moving, getting married, having kids. In each of these moments, there is a chance for people to give up on exercise, possibly for good.

"What it comes down to at each of those points is if we have the skills to be flexible and keep believing that these things are good for us. … I can keep it a priority and make it something I schedule the rest of my life around," Bray says. "Unfortunately, [exercise] is one of the first things that goes when we get busy with other things."

Jochen Ziegelmann, a psychologist at Berlin’s Freie Universitat, has done work looking at goal-setting as it relates to exercise. He and a number of other psychologists who have done similar studies have found that participants who made implementation intentions ("I will walk to my friend’s house and back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday") were more likely to continue exercising after two weeks than were people who set goal-intentions ("I will exercise in my free time").

Once you have set your goals for implementing your exercise, it is easier to keep a certain exercise part of your routine. Then, you must be able to motivate yourself even on the days when you’re feeling tired or bored or distracted. That’s called self-control.

Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, has spent his career looking at self-control and decision making, and he has found that self-control is not an unlimited resource — the more you use your self-control, the more difficult it becomes to control your actions.

So if you spend all day trying to avoid the Snickers in the vending machine or trying not to say anything mean to your devilish child, you might not have the same stamina you normally would when you get home for an evening run.

Baumeister relates the idea of self-control to a muscle that becomes more exhausted the more you use it, and his studies "all pointed toward the conclusion that the first self-control task consumed and depleted some kind of psychological resource that was therefore less available to help performance on the second self-control task."

Once you’re off the couch, you have to figure out how to exercise to best meet your goals. That’s what Thomas Plante has been working on for more than 20 years. Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, has looked at the psychological benefits of exercise in men and women. He focuses on keeping the exercise constant — 20 minutes at about 70 percent of the participants’ maximum heart rate — and then he measures people’s mood.

He has found that environment changes the type of psychological benefits one gets. Exercising indoors and alone is calming for many exercisers. However, if the goal of exercising is to feel energized, then participants are better off exercising outdoors and with friends.

Follow the link below to read more detail in this extensive article.

a news release of The Association for Psychological Science, "Exercising judgment: The psychology of fitness", Jan 9, 2008
These links are checked on the date of the article. As the article ages, some links may become invalid

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