Themes in exercise adherence vs. dropout

After reading Greg Downey’s The Encultured Brain chapter on neural enculturation in capoeira and Lisa Heywood’s 2011 article advocating a cultural neuropychology of sport, I thought a lot about how these articles applied to physical activity in general. What makes people commit to physical activity? This isn’t a question I’m unfamiliar with. As a chronic yo-yo dieter and infrequent exerciser (who has the time anyway?), this is something I’ve asked myself for years, only to find myself lacking motivation again and again despite the colorful articles found online and in pop-culture magazines promising to give me a new outlook on my physical health and help me form lasting fitness-related habits.

Lisa Pridgeon and Sarah Grogan provide insight into why adherence to an exercise regimen in difficult for some  by exploring themes shared by people (adherers and non-adherers) who, currently or at one point, held gym memberships. Pridgeon was advised in this project  by Grogan, a professor at Staffordshire University’s School of Psychology Sport and Exercise. Grogan’s primary work is in exploring body image.

Pridgeon and Grogan interviewed 14 men and women, asking them to talk openly about their gym/exercise experience. 9 were current gym members, who adhered to a regular exercise routine, while 5 were former members. All were members of a small gym in the UK where membership was composed of 90% males. The participants in the study reflected the gym’s gender proportions. Pridgeon and Grogan then used interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) to identify common themes in gym experience among the participants.

Both participant groups had three themes in common when considering commitment to an exercise regimen, as well as a theme specific to each group. Adherers and non-adherers shared ideas of upward social comparisonculture, and habit. Although these three themes were present in all participants’ ideas about adherence to exercise, their attitudes toward these themes differed between groups. Adherers alone shared a theme of exercise dependency, while non-adherers shared ideas of social support as a motivating factor.

Upward Social Comparisons

We all compare ourselves to the people around us. In a gym setting, this often means interacting with people of a higher fitness level. For people who adhere to a regular exercise routine, this upward social comparison is motivating. For most adherers, the idea that you could progress without these comparisons (the presence of a role model) is ridiculous. Although this was a motivating factor for adherers, there was a negative tone behind some of these stories, namely that having a role model decreased body satisfaction and therefore drove the individual to continue to exercise more.

The story is a little different for non-adherers. Upward social comparison for these people also increases body dissatisfaction, but typically at such a high level that it discourages these individuals from continuing to exercise. Especially in females, this heightened body dissatisfaction is an important factor in why they discontinue exercise routines.

Culture

I’m sure we’ve all seen the Planet Fitness commercials that promote their gyms as a “Judgement Free Zone.” This ad campaign is an effort to separate their gyms from “gym culture,” which a lot of people view negatively. Pridgeon and Grogan found that gym culture meant something different to men and women. Men viewed fitness in the gym as competitive. Individuals were always striving to be better or equal to their peers. Success in these endeavors is recognized and praised by their peers, and therefore is very rewarding. Women see gym culture as a support system and value social interaction and acceptance over competition.

What determined adherence or non-adherence when it came to culture was simply whether or not the individual felt the gym’s culture was consistent with their personal identity.  Non-adherers reported feeling like an outsider while adherers viewed the gym culture as re-affirming their personal identity.

Habit

Both adherers and non-adherers agreed that forming habits was important to adherence.  Adherers simply removed the decision making process, and were instead prompted to engage in exercise through situational cues. For non-adherers, reestablishing a lost habit was one of the biggest obstacles to rejoining the gym.

Dependency

This theme was present in the account of adherers only. Addiction and endorphins were credited with adherence. While dependency could be detrimental, the adherers asserted that some level of dependency was necessary to maintain their adherence.

Social support

For non-adherers only, losing or lacking social support was a common reason for gym dropout. These people found that their exercise adherence was better when they planned to go with someone instead of going alone.

Member validation

One member from each group switched roles during this study, and were able to confirm these themes. An adherer stopped exercising after an injury, and found it hard to reestablish his gym habit. Conversely, a non-adherer started to exercise more and confirmed the dependency theme, reporting increased gym attendance increased her body satisfaction and self efficacy.


Understanding reasons behind exercise adherence can be very important when taking into account a lot of long term health problems can be fixed or controlled through regular exercise. This phenomenological approach from Pridgeon and Grogan provides unique insight into this problem.

 

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