Why do we exercise?

Whatever the motivation may be, maintaining routines of proper nutrition and exercise leads to a healthier life. 

Risk levels for chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, osteoporosis are all reduced by regular exercise.  This has been shown in study after study, as well as in the compelling success stories of countless individual accounts.

And yet, despite this knowledge, so many give up or struggle to continue.  Why is that?

To answer this question, researchers look at individual’s values and goals in an effort to determine why some stay on track, while others fall by the wayside.  If a specific link can be made, then this may direct future educational endeavors and thereby increase participation on a more consistent basis.

The impact of goals on behavior has been well established in numerous theories of human behavior.  Some common thoughts regarding the interplay between goals and behavior include:

  • The perceived discrepancy between a person’s actual state and their desired state is what motivates people to make behavioral changes. (Dishman, Gebhardt))
  • Behavior can only be understood by identifying the goals that are connected to it. (Carver & Scheier)
  • A person’s level of motivation for a behavior is partially determined by the desire they feel toward the goal that is motivating that behavior. (Ex. If a person is excited to lose weight, they may feel more excited about the diet, exercise, or other behavior(s) they are using to meet that goal.) (Lutz, et all)

While these insights from research show the importance of goals for staying motivated, few theories in exercise research address the connection between goal and behavior.

Carver and Scheier’s 1990 theory of self-regulation sorts goals into a 3-level hierarchy:

  • superordinate-level goal: reasons why the focal goal is important
  • focal goal: the concrete goal intention
  • Subordinate-level goal: specific action needed to reach the focal goal

Superordinate goals are related to the values and principles of the individual.  Therefore, they are considered “important self-regulatory guides for behavior.”  Previous studies have shown this to be true for everything from volunteering for military service to purchasing a certain automobile brand to hypertensive patients’ beliefs and self-regulation.

Health care providers often recommend exercise as part of a diet and weight-loss plan.   Researchers hypothesized that consideration of superordinate goals, would allow for better programs and education to be developed to help individuals establish lasting exercise habits.  They propose that in today’s society, people have been socialized to value exercise for a limited number of health- and weight-related benefits, and that this has influenced the particular goals they hope to achieve from exercising

According to a 1996 article, our culture has a tremendous impact on our behavior and self-regulation. The EEVM (Eccles et al., Value Expectancy Model) is a theory developed to explain how we make decisions.  Through over 30 years of research, it has revealed that daily decisions and goals are biased by our socialization and that this is particularly true of our perceived priorities. 

In the case of exercise, because we have been socialized that good health is a common core value, we consider exercise to be an important health behavior.  It is therefore not surprising that individuals report health as a reason to exercise.

However, additional research has shown that simply believing exercise will lead to “good” health or weight loss is not enough motivation.  A 2002 study looked at women enrolled in a 12-week physical activity intervention that had been developed for sedentary individuals.  They found that the participants who were motivated to lose weight were often the ones who did not continue the program.  However, those who sought to enhance their daily life did continue the program.

In the 2011 study entitled, Rebranding exercise: closing the gap between values and behavior, researchers hypothesized that participants whose superordinate goals are related to enhancing the quality of daily life would be more likely to maintain exercise behaviors than those who were motivated by health or weight goals.  To do this, they developed 3 objectives:

1) to identify and investigate the content of midlife women’s superordinate exercise goals;

2) to identify which superordinate exercise goals are most highly valued; and

3) to identify which goals predict the most exercise participation over time.

Participants in the study were female employees at a university.  Almost 300 women, aged 40-60, and holding clerical jobs comprised the study group.  Data was collected on 3 occasions between September 2004 and November 2005: baseline, 1 month and 1 year.

Participants were asked what their exercise goal was, as well as why it was important to them.  Data regarding body mass index, social support, demographics and typical exercise levels were also obtained.

A few key findings include:

  • Participants whose superordinate goals were related to quality of life (sleep better, feel centered, etc.) exercised 34% more than those with weight loss/appearance goals.
  • Participants with quality of life goals exercised 25% more than those with current health goals (lower cholesterol, healthy lifestyle, etc.)
  • Participants with quality of life goals exercised 15% more than those with healthy aging goals (pain free old age, long life, etc.)
  • There was no significant difference between current health and healthy aging goals
  • Highest exercise participation was seen among those exercising to meet quality of life goals.
  • Lowest exercise participation was seen among those exercising to meet weight/appearance goals.
  • Generally, greater exercise participation was associated with lower BMI and higher social support.

While those who sought to meet quality of life goals exercised significantly more than their peers, this still made up less than 25% of the participants.  Instead, most reported health or healthy aging goals as their motivation.

Researchers felt this may reflect the way exercise has been promoted up to this point in time.  For example, even when the American Heart Association began to include “you’ll feel better” in their exercise promotions, the primary message remained disease prevention and life expectancy.

Researchers were concerned that promoting exercise primarily within health care as a method to improve health or lose weight, may actually lead individuals to view exercise as something they are “supposed to do” rather than something that is personally important or satisfying.

In light of their findings, researchers suggest that we should view exercise as a “primary method to enhance aspects of daily life.”  This puts the focus on immediate benefits.

Then as the immediate benefits prompt continued exercise, the individual may start to experience the more long-term benefits.  Improved daily living resulting from exercise heightens the value of exercise and makes it more desirable to fit into a busy schedule.

While this study was somewhat limited in nature, it does add to the growing body of knowledge regarding how our behaviors are determined by our goals.  Health care providers and advocacy organizations may find shifting the focus of their messaging to how exercise benefits the individual in their daily life will help them sustain routines and, in time, experience both the short- and long-term benefits of exercise.

Talk to your chiropractor about which benefits to your quality of life you could achieve by incorporating exercise into your regular schedule.  Additionally, your doctor may be able to assist you in selecting exercises that would be beneficial for you or in locating reputable exercise programs in your area.  There is a vast array of activities for all ages, abilities and interests.  Find what works for you and start reaping the benefits today!


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